Category Archives: Literature

Anything literary or related to literature, including my own modest attempts.

Final Thoughts (for now) on the Four Function Diagram


I don’t really like the term “final thoughts” as it sounds as if I am planning to stop thinking afterwards, or maybe stop existing altogether, which I am certainly not considering if I can help it, however I do need, as Victor Berrjod kindly reminds me, to round this off, hence the title.

Let me just get a coffee, this could be a longish article, maybe you would like one as well?

Right, let’s continue. The story so far is that we’ve divided the things or activities that you can do in a language, be it counting, swearing, praying, reading the paper, watching TV, learning the songs of the language or filling in a visa form or a job application into four basic types or functions, as shown in the above table:

1. Reading
2. Writing
3. Listening
4. Speaking

Just about anything you can do in a language bases on one or more of these four functions.

Take a moment if you like to see of you can think of any activity involving language that is an exception, and by all means tell me in the comments. Personally I could not think of any exceptions.

We’ve also considered that for one pair of these functions, listening and reading, the learner is on the receiving end of polished language and therefore is able to use his or her passive knowledge to engage in the function and its related activities. Listening is more challenging than reading because the user has less ability to control the speed, although there are instruments available based on developing listening skills where you can control the pace of listening. We talked about audio courses where you have your pause button, and another good one is Audible where you can buy audiobooks in other languages and set a slower narrator speed, or a higher one in order to develop ‘listening fluency’. However, in the main, for the passive pair as long as a word is known passively the learner will not be put off his or her stride by reading or hearing it as they will be able to recall its meaning when it is given in the language much easier than when he or she needs to generate the expression and knows it passively, but is not in an active state, and the mind goes blank.

Conversely, we’ve recognised that the other pair of functions, speaking and writing, are ones in which we the learner are called upon to generate the learned language and not just fluently recognise meaning and stay with the flow of the presented foreign language material. This represents an additional challenge but one essential to get to grips with sooner or later if you want to SPEAK the language. We are always hearing the term “what languages do you speak?” rather than which can you read, listen to with understanding or even write in. Now more than ever nobody seem to be all that impressed by the ability to write in a foreign language – unless they actually watch you forming calligraphic kanjis with your hand – because things like Google Translate are available. And even though in the main the Google Translate users do give themselves away pretty quickly, seeing that the quality of that service is not yet all one might be led to expect, nevertheless sometimes quite convincing written language comes at you over the internet from people who don’t really know the language in question at all. They are having fun, but it also serves to undermine the value placed by the online community on written foreign language skills and so now, more than ever, the gold standard is really what you can speak. Read the rest of this entry

Further Thoughts on the Four Function Diagram


I am now returning, having received a moment ago a timely reminder from Victor Berrjod, to the discussion on the above diagram, and what it can show us of use to the learners of language.

In the earlier article, I wrote about how in reading and in listening the language user is passive – not having to generate his own grammatically correct language or have the right word at hand. Therefore reading and listening are intrinsically less challenging than writing or speaking.  For someone not in an active state with his command of a foreign language, reading and listening creates less of a problem than writing or speaking. If he, or she, knows the word in their passive memory then it should be that they can deal with reading it or listening to it.  In order to be able to speak or writing a person must find that word for themselves.

So we have compared the two rows in the diagram. Let us now compare the two columns.

In the leftmost column, the one containing reading as the passive skill or function and writing as the active skill, we can say that the learner is able to exercise more control over timing when reading and writing than when speaking and listening. Read the rest of this entry

Question on lexical sufficiency

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad Korzeniowski - the ultimate benchmark in mastery of an acquired language is surely that of having added to its artistic literature?

Reader (and poster) Bill_Sage667 from’s forum wrote me the following question and agreed kindly to a public answer here:

Dunno whether u’ll be able to find the time to reply to this, 1 in a million chance lol……but I’ll write out my questions anyway lol

You said something about 15,000 words needed in order to achieve a good degree level in Russian. Are imperfective and perfective verbs considered separate words, as well as adjectives and verbs under the same lexemes (e.g. беремменость, беремменая, беремменеть, забеременнеть) when you were estimating the number of words?

And what if someday I want to attain the proficiency of an educated native speaker (might take me 20 yrs but oh well)? How many words am I supposed to know (for active and passive knowledge)? For Russian, that is. btw thanks for releasing the Gold List Method to the public for free!

Firstly, Bill, be careful about the number of ‘m’s and ‘n’s you have in those pregancy-related words. You have too many ‘m’s and not enough ‘n’s. I’ll leave you to review that one.

You’re very welcome about the Goldlist. As I say in the section I wrote in syzygycc’s The Polyglot Project, I’m just paying forward the favours I got from so many people when I was a young learner.

In my opinion 15,000 words, as long as they are properly selected, are perfectly adequate and in the headlist you would use all the forms initially as separate forms (but not the various conjugations and case endings, only the so-called ‘dictionary forms’) and you could soon condense them on distillation.

If you use the frequency distionary I am selling on you will be able to focus on commoner words first. Within the first 10,000 words you do get words that are already pretty specialised that you wouldn’t use maybe more than once a month or so even if you were a native, and so it continues over the next 5,000 as well. You’ll find 15,000 enough to read the great novels comfortably and to appreciate the poetry of Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and even Strogonova (the last of which you will find uniquely published in this blog as a ‘page’. She is no poorer a poet than these well-known ones, only far less known.)

I would also like to draw people’s attention to something else I wrote about the 15,000 word ‘marathon’ in a thread over on the HTLAL forum:

What this Gladwell character [I'm referring to upstream discussion of someone who said you must have 10,000 hours of learning to become fully fluent, like a native - a claim almost unanimously rejected by every serious linguist and polyglot I know other than those who teach languages privately, as this idea is grist to their mill] needs to bear in mind is the Pareto rule. If it were true (which I dispute) that you need 10,000 hours to become as native (although how this deals with your accent is anyone’s guess) then you could get 80% of it in 20% of the time. That means you’d need to have 2,000 hours study to get to 80% of native fluency. Since that’s ludicrously overcautios, I’d suggest that the 10,000 hour target for full native fluency is overcautious.

The fact is, a person could be like Konrad Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrad) and already writing ground-breaking literature in the language he or she had learned and still have a strong enough accent to provoke politely meant but annoying compliments on the quality of his language by native speakers.

In the end you just have to accept what English speakers accepted for their own language in the main long ago – that as long as it doesn’t hinder comprehension, a foreigner’s accent in English is just as valid as a “native” accent. This is easily accepted by multi-national or mega-regional languages like Spanish, Russian, Chinese, etc, but in places like Poland as there is largely only one way of speaking, the bar is raised for their own language.

So in fact that means that the same n-thousand hours done by an Englishman in Russian could have the Russians noticing very little different about the foreigner, especially if he has a bad haircut. Whereas if he has a really bad haircut and the same n-thousand hours of Czech, the reaction will probably be “he looks like one of us, but our language is difficult and so we must forgive the way he sounds, although obviously we are frank and friendly people so we will tell him to his face at regular intervals that his Czech sucks bigtime.”

Given this subjectivity, I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s linguistic shadow, but simply to set amounts of words as targets. 15,000 words is in language learning, to my mind, what the marathon is in athletics. If you’re fit, you can do it with patience and training. And if you can do it, nobody can say you’re not fit.

There are longer races, there are tougher events. But the marathon is the ‘classic’ and the marathon runner knows that it’s really a competition against yourself and not really against the runners alongside. Even people coming in at six hours are clapped and get a medal. So should language learning be.

If this article is of interest you can look up the article as plenty of people have some interesting stuff to say, both about the 10,000 hours nonsense and the number of words needed. I get into a discussion with “Lingua Frankly” blogger Niall Beag (known as Cainntear) on when the Pareto rule isn’t just a number like 10,000 with no real basis for being a law. There are also those who are ready to stand up for the honour of the number 10,000 and tell the detractors of 10,000 hours to mind their jolly manners. Excellent thread.

I’m going to add more thoughts there today.

Kafkaesque! (CUV)

Kafka, Franz: Der Prozeß. Roman. Berlin: Die S...

He liked hard-back notebooks too, did our Franz.

Here we have, in nice HD coding, a walk around in Prague, showing some of the flavour of the experience of being in the Czech Republic – including this very strange thing that happened to me last Spring.

Here, in the city of Kafka, I was seriously summoned to court without being informed why. Just like Joseph K in ‘Der Prozess‘ or ‘The Trial’ by Kafka. You really couldn’t make it up.

I don’t want to talk about the facts of what the case turned out to be, (especially as one party of it graces some films of mine on YT, which will also be shown here) but to my relief I only actually needed to be a witness. I have no wrongdoing as such on my conscience, but I have been known to sack people, and they get given more rights than I do when it comes to court, even if there’s no earthly justice in it. But this wasn’t even someone I had sacked. Because I didn’t know that, I had to go to the expense of a decent lawyer who naturally deserved to be paid for his appearance despite not in the end having a decisive role. But in the end I didn’t get annoyed about it, as it was something truly Kafkaesque in the city of Kafka which I’ll be able to remember and joke about for the rest of my life.

I also talk a little bit about learning Japanese and the kitsch for sale to tourists in Prague.

I thought I’d spice things up with a poll! Remember this is not the number of cases you’ve seen – you may have been more than once. Count is as number of days you’ve ever had to turn up. Don’t count it if you went along just for entertainment.

Polish Poetry Homework (CUV)

Hot off the press today, not historic in any way, my helping Sophie get more motivated to learn the poetry for her Polish literature class led me to do an impromptu YouTube session with her reciting some from memory.

It may interest you to know that none of the poems were learned with this video in mind, or even recently, and the class test of them happened some time ago.

I don’t let Sophie read a poem more than once a day. I don’t let her read without trying to enjoy the poetry and understand something from it. Never read in order to memorise, but in order to enjoy. Then go back some time later, especially more that two weeks later in the end, and see what was memorised and what not. Just like the goldlist method, only without the writing out, only using recitation.

This method works with a child’s poetry syllabus if you get ahead and do the initial readings well ahead of the class, so that the child already really knows most of the and is at the most putting in the finishing touches while other children are in a panic trying to force the thing into their memory. This results inevitably in the child using the Polish school method having the poem in the short-term memory and the child using a staged repetition technique and taking a long-term view  will have a long-term memory of the poem.

So where you have continuous assessment, the benefit is reaped by people who simply won’t remember the poem once the year is finished. But children need to understand that education is for them to take something precious into their lives and is not just about marks and grades. A teacher might grade the cramming kids higher, but they simply won’t know much when my lower graded kid will remember more than any of the rest of them, and have a more pleasant time over it.

The Polyglot Project Update

I understand that the download from DocsStocs made by Claude Cartaginese has now reached into over 5,000 downloads, with also many other sources of this document appearing also on the web as people share it freely as intended, so that the full number of downloads may be as high as 10,000 or more.

The Polyglot Project - 42 contributors, 534 pages, including the whole background to the Goldlist Methodology and how I came to invent it.

Set against that, though is the fact that not nearly so many paper copies have been ordered. The only place they can be ordered is Amazon in America, not the UK Amazon as yet, and the link to the product is embedded on the thumbnail.

If you would like a book worth in fact over 50 USD if it had not be gifted by over 40 volunteers each telling how they managed to learn multiple languages for less than 17 dollars, and also support Uncle Claude who had to fork out some of his private lolly on making the first bunch of paper books that are not selling, even though people have been eager to take the free version, then either click on the link here (which gives you the same price and I think I’m on 6% without costing you any more) or if you don’t want to give me 6% but still pay the same, then find the link just by going normally to and searching for it.

If you read the e-version and liked it, why not buy the paper version as a gift for someone else? It will always be possible to get a free version of this booki, but the printed one is very nice too and a good use of seventeen dollars, so please let’s be having a few more purchases of it.


The Book of Samson and Dallillah

Rembrandt's depiction of Samson's marriage feast

Rembrandt's depiction of Samson's marriage feast

Here is the The Book of Samson and Dallillah (the second book of the Usenet Apocrypha, the first being The Book of Aaron, also available on this site. The third book, The Wisdom of David  is lost and efforts are being made to uncover it for the readership of Huliganov TV.


The Book of Samson and Dallillah is believed to be, along with the other Books that make up the Apocrypha of Yuzneth, a lost portion of the Book of Mormon, having fallen out of Joseph Smith’s pocket as he was walking back from the hill to the village of Manchester, Ontario County, which, by a cosmic misunderstanding, fell through a kink in the space time continuum and ended up in Manchester England 159 years later and was offered for sale to me by a man in a white van as I was taking petrol at Knutsford Service Station. I didn’t get his number.

Those modern day mormons who became aware of the existence of this
book naturally wished to acquire it, but the angel Moroni came to me
in a vision during an advert break on telly as I was enjoying a nice
cup of coffee and gave me to understand that they had had their
chance and blew it when Joe Smith let it fall out of his pocket,
especially since they didn’t drink caffeine based hot drinks as God
had commanded to the remnant of the human race at the time of Noah,
and that now it was my turn, as a linguist and coffee addict, to have
a go with the Urim and Thummim, and translate the plates, and the
mormons were not to have them for any money, or all the tea in China.

And so, without further ado, here is The Book of Samson and

Chapter One

1.      As it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘Blessed is the man
that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the
way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

2.      But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in His law doth
he meditate day and night’.

3.      There was indeed one who was such in the land of Yuzneth, and
verily he was like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that
bringeth forth his fruit in his season

4.      And his scroll of answers to oft asked questions came forth as
an offering to the people of the temple each time that the moon was

5.      And he was a leader, as a lodestone amongst men, and he did
establish the Assembly of the Righteous, and did give them laws in
the Scroll, which was called Nethi-Keth. Read the rest of this entry

The Book of Aaron

Aaron, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th...

Aaron, Icon from the Land of Rus

The “Book Of Aaron” is part of the Usenet Apocrypha, a number of books written by me in the 1990s satirising the soap opera that went on in various Usenet discussion groups or newsgroups, some of whose participants were real people airing their linen, and others where personae there to troll or participate in the rough and tumble of Usenet discussion (read: “flamewars“). Some of the flamewars were productive of quite creative writing, and in this case I used the Jacobean English of the King James Bible (no disrespect to the Bible itself intended of course, it is merely the humour to be had from juxtaposing this classical and religious form of English on the life and views of a handful of eccentric guys and girls living in modern America) to produce some Usenet Apocrypha celebrating and combining some of the amusing stories that had been discussed on the group over recent months, in particular those of usenet legend Aaron Kulkis, described by many as the Ubertroll. Whether he genuinely believed his chauvinistic beliefs nobody can say, but he was a real person who came to see me in London in 1998. For those who don’t know the people involved, I have know idea whether the book will still be a laugh or not, or make any sense or not. You tell me!

Chapter One

1. This is the history of the prophet Aaron son of Kulkis, which beginneth when he was yet unborn.

2. In the land of Po the LORD looked over the people to see if there were any righteous and not sunken in iniquity.  And behold, one Kulkis of the ancient tribe of Lith did walk uprightly.

3. And the LORD came unto him in a vision by night and said unto him ‘Gird up thy loins and betake thee and all thine house unto a land which is afar off, a land that I, the LORD thy God will shew thee’.

4. And Kulkis did exceedingly fear and shake before the countenance of the LORD and great were the movements of his bowels. Read the rest of this entry


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