by tractates


The Gold List Method is a mnemonic aid for language learning developed by “Uncle Davey” (you can watch him explain it on Youtube here). It sounds like a pretty compelling idea, so I thought I would try it out myself as I begin learning German and Old English. Let’s see if I can briefly explain it:

Step 1: On the left page of a notebook you will make a 25 item vocabulary list with the translations to the right. On the right page reserve a space for a list of 17, below that a list of 12, and below the list of 25, again on the left page, a list of 8. Leave those lists blank, as you will come back to them later. Be sure to date the first list.

Step 2: Study. Write down twenty five words you would like to learn and try to memorize them all. Don’t spend more than half an hour on this, as you will tire yourself out and fail to memorize them. Make sure you are alert, and not tired or hungry.

Step 3: Using a small sticky note, write the date of the day two weeks from the day you made the first list. This is to remind you to come back to the list without having to open the page again or calculate it later. On that day, you will come back to the gold list. Cover up the translations, and go down the list trying to remember each word. Or, go down the translations and try to translate them into the language you are attempting to learn. Don’t fret, unless you have a particularly keen long-term memory, you will only remember about eight out of twenty five words. If it is a little less that is okay. As you make more lists you will train yourself to remember more. Write a little x next to the words you don’t remember.

Step 4: Take the roughly seventeen words you did not remember and write them in the list on the opposing page. As you do this, try and learn them as best you can, like in step two. Place a new tab with the date two weeks from now, when you will revisit this list of seventeen.

Step 5: You will now repeat the process, and as you do, you should be able to remember more and more of the words. After two months, you will have visited this list of twenty-five words four times. Almost all of them should have entered your long term memory at this point. If there are any you still can’t remember, simply incorporate them into a new list.

This process takes a long time, but that is supposedly just how long term memory works. You can, however, make many lists, so that after two months your vocabulary should be expanding considerably. There has been some debate as exactly how effective a method this really is, as well as some interesting variations on it (like this polyglot, who lists full sentences instead of vocabulary). But I think the premises at the heart of the method are sound.

Based in neuro-linguistic research and accounting methods – The goal is long term memory acquisition. According to psychological studies off of which Uncle Davey based his method, we know that short term memory dissipates after about two weeks, and long term memory retains about 30% of a given experience. Thus, we revisit a given list every two weeks. Upon each visit, we know ahead of time that we will remember only about eight of the twenty-five words (roughly 30%). Therefore, we’ll have about seventeen words for the next list, of which we’ll remember about five, leaving twelve for the third list, and eight for the final list. After revisiting those eight words a final time we are likely to remember them, but if we don’t, we can incorporate them into a new list of twenty-five.

Stress Factor -“The long term memory, like your heartbeat, is not under your conscious control”. When I was learning French I had a bad habit of berating and blaming myself for not remembering vocabulary. Living in France was often terribly stressful simply due to my own self-deprecating and punishing approach to language learning. It was unhealthy, to say the least, and not very effective. What I like about the Gold List is that it is designed to be forgiving and low in the stress factor. I’m not suggesting that learning German is not going to be stressful, but approaching long term memory acquisition with the scientifically backed foresight that I will likely remember eight out of twenty-five words is, well, relieving for someone so inclined to self-deprecation.

My variations on the method:

When I took the GRE a few years ago, I had to memorize advanced English vocab devoid of context. So, during the exam you are given four words outside of of any sentence or other context, and the task is to find the two words that conceptually relate (either as opposites, or similarity in meaning). I think it would be more fruitful, though more difficult, to write Gold Lists in this way, because you force yourself to learn the words out of context and should thus be able to identify them in various different contexts. I figure there are two kinds of contexts that can occur in a gold list besides listing sentences: grouping words with related meaning or theme (such as placing the verb glauben, to believe, next to the noun Gott, God), or grouping words with the same stem (ohne, ohnmacht, ohnmachtig, etc.). These act as mnemonic aids which ease the learning process, but the danger here lies in encountering, say, the word glauben without Gott, and not recognizing it. So for my first few lists I’ve simply gone down 2001 Most Useful German Words alphabetically. This is way more difficult, but I’m hoping the pay off will be worth it.

On the other hand, listing commonly used phrases, i.e. contexts which you will certainly find yourself in (Bitte, wo ist die simeonstrasse?), is obviously a good exercise, but with a very different learning outcome. I will alternate my lists between context and contextless and see what bears more long-term knowledge fruit.

You need a notebook for listing and listing only. I recommend the soft cover, 8.25 x 11.7” Leuchtturm 1917 brand ‘Jottbook’. It runs for about 12$ USD, has a nice leather cover, 60 pages, a place to write the date, and lines perfect for listing things. After completing a list, I write the date of the day two weeks from then on a little sticky tab, and place it so the date is sticking out of the page on the side. That way I will know when to revisit the list without risking the chance of glancing at the words (thus placing them in my memory again).

Do you want to try this method out, or have you already? I will post more in the coming months as my lists evolve, but I would like to hear your feedback, thoughts and suggestions.