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Response to reader’s question “How long until I understand the language I am learning when spoken?”


''Note that in this diagram, sensory memory is...

Yet another diagram from the net about long-term memory that kind of misses the point and can even be dangerously misleading (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m grateful for this question. It surely affects most learners at some stage – especially when learning a language for the first time, or doing it on your own for the first time/taking it seriously for the first time, as opposed to school learning.

It’s not really a question of time but of the presence of certain ingredients in your brain. If you have done at some stage a Pimsleur or some audio course so that you know what the words and phrases you are goldlisting are supposed to sound like in a pretty standard version of the language you are learning, and you have goldlisted about 10,000 words or more and taken them through to the end of silver if not gold levels, then you can do the following activity with a much higher assurance of success.

You need to get hold of an audio book for a book you can read in that language, and where there is a translation in English. The best place for this is Audible, where the app allows you also graded speeds of listening to the same material – and you can start off with a slower speed and build up. Listen to the same piece of 10 minutes long with short, ten minute breaks about three times over. This is not a long-term memory exercise it is an ear exercise and so you are perfectly OK using short-term memory techniques for this, they are quite appropriate. This is not the point at which you learn the words, you should have learned most of them before. This is where you push your ear and get it to go “aha”.

Once you have done this, you are likely to find that some parts of the spoken text have become a tad clearer and some still baffle you. You then open the book and read the text, which you should not have done before this point.

Having read the text, if there are any words that you do not know, please mark them and find them in the English text, please also make sure that anything you get from the English text which you didn’t get from the original – work out if that’s the fault of your lack of nuancing or too much freedom on the part of the translator. Add any missing knowledge back into your headlist and put it through the Goldlist system in due course.

You then should read the text while listening to it at normal speed. You can do this a couple of times if you feel it needed.

You should be able to speak along with the recording now, while reading the text. If this is hard at first, use the pause button and precede each recorded sentence with your own attempt.

Then finally you can go back to just listening but use higher speeds, like 1,25 or 1,5* normal.

You then move on to the next chunk of text, rinse and repeat.

But every so often you go back and listen to what you heard before.

Not only will this improve listening comprehension, but also accent.

Nevertheless, it is not a way of learning to the long term memory, it’s an aural fitness routine. You therefore, like I said at the beginning, should only start to do this once you are really nearing your goldlist target.

It is a way of getting to speaking fluency as well around the “listening” route described in my articles here on my Four Function Diagram.

This activity will increase the time to fluency but you need to vary the voices you hear. In due course listening to DVDs in the language which have subtitles will be useful, and then gradually listening to news reports. Start with TV ones, and then move out to radio ones where you do not have the crutch of the image.

Many thanks again for the question.

Answering a person who is not attracted to the Goldlist system.


I’m reposting here my response to the article about why the Owner of the blog Polyglot Posturings isn’t attracted to using the Goldlist system. Please first read her objections here:

http://kaetslanguages.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/initial-thoughts-on-a-long-term-vocab-learning-system/

OK, first off, I don’t think that flash cards focus on the short term memory. It all depends on how they are used. If you cram them, then you’ll switch on the short term memory. If you take them at a measured pace and make a sort of SRS for yourself from them, you’ll be OK. I have one major problem with flashcards, namely where am I going to keep 16,000 cards? And why bother to waste card for each word when some words will be learned the very first time we see them?

Having cleared up that I am not anti flash card (and I use readthekanji.com as well as goldlisting Japanese, and that’s a flash card approach, only on line) let me take your objections in order.

1. It was twenty minutes, but it doesn’t have to be twenty uninterrupted minutes. It is not necessary to do 25 words at once. I am saying don’t do too much in one go because the long-term memory is an unconscious function so you can’t tell when it’s got tired. You have to anticipate that instead, by having breaks. If you were to do 5 or 10 minutes a go that would also be fine. Only not to be stressed about it.

2. Once you get the system going then you develop a batching system and when you get to the end of the new batch of the headlist, then you simply automatically go back to the beginning again. You remember about it because the book is with you. It’s not necessarily a big book. Oonce you get into it it is relaxing and even addictive, and you don’t have to be in front of a screen or playing with scissors, cards and envelopes. The tools are very simple.

3. I found this argument the most surprising, and I would politely take issue with what fluency means and if it’s really the most important thing. If speaking is the most important skill, moreso than listening, reading or even writing, then I understand why people focus on keeping their smaller vocabularies actuve. It gives them the impression that they have really gone somewhere in a language, even if all they have is 1000 or 2000 words on the tip of their tongue. You cannot watch a film and understand it properly with that, you cannot really read a newspaper, you cannot delve into the literature of the culture you are looking at. You can get by like a glorified tourist, and that’s that. If all the vocab you need in a language is the vocab you’ll use all the time, then you’ll be on a par with the thickoes of that language, able to talk nineteen to the dozen but not being able to formulate very precise thoughts and limiting themselves always to a small pool of words. Your written work will not be interesting to read, anything beyond ordering food or buying shopping will be tough as you will struggle with nuances on only the words you have when you stop being a beginner. If you want to have a decent vocabulary, then it’s a question of building it up to 10,000 or maybe 15,000 words or more. Certainly that is the level that professionals using English in their work as a non-native language are attaining to and if you want to speak their language to them rather than have them simply override your attempts and slip into English with you, that’s what you’ll have to achieve. And that task takes time. Much much longer than the time spent learning just the basic grammar and the main irregular points of grammar,

Let me give you an example from real life of how I once countered the argument against the amassing of vocabulary: I was in a car with someone who said his university lecturer in English said to concentrate on grammar and not vocabulary as if you didn’t know the odd word you’d be able to guess from context what the meaning is. So I said “I see your teacher is an imbecile”, to which he said “is that good or bad?” I rested my case.

Nobody is saying that you have to achieve 15,000 words if you don’t want to. I would say it is very well worthwhile to achieve that “degree level” knowledge and it does mean a completely different kind of fluency than that pseudofluency of always having the 2000 words on the tip of one’s tongue, which actually isn’t possible for more than a few languages at once at 1000-2000 vocab levels anyway. The the passive acquisition of larger vocabularies is a better way to spend time than to spend it continually activating and reactivating a small and stagnant vocabulary.

There is nothing wrong with knowing words for the sake of knowing them. Words are the tools of thought and of ideas, and you never know where they will take you. Words are deeply exciting. So are phrases, for that matter. Knowing words for the sake of knowing them is infinitely preferable to not knowing words for the sake of not knowing them.

Learning 15,000 words in an ineffective way can take so long a person may well never do it. Using Goldlist it should take 600 hours in total, but in small bursts. You can see at every moment and calculate exactly how far along the road you are, and this aids motivation. You know when you pass the half way mark and every other numeric milestone.

Night Storm over Warsaw


Playout date: 6 October 2006
Camera: Fuji Finepix
Post Production: Windows Movie Maker – slight use
Location: Home – 12th floor of building
Other people featured: None
Genre: Environmental
Music used: Andrey Vinogradov – Kak na Moriul
Languages used: Bialorusian, English
Animals featured: None

It was a pretty active storm, with plenty of lightning. This year we’ve had several like this, but this was 2006, and back then it was more of a rarity. The hurdy gurdy music by Andrey Vinogradov also attracted a lot of comment over on YT.

The stubborn ear of the first-time linguist.


Portrait of Jane Austen, from the memoir by J....

Meet your new English teacher...

This is an answer to the question received from Grzegorz Siwiec which I’ve answered also where he put it in the Goldlist section, and also I wanted to make an article of it in its own right as it’s a great question. I’ve added a bit more here than in the answer to his question, so hopefully you’ll read it here as well. The additional bit is at the end.

You basically said that when you read English you understand a lot, but when you hear even the same text spoken, you understand a lot less. You asked whether the Goldlist method would help with listening.

OK, so here’s the answer.

Firstly, reading and listening are two sides of the same discipline. They are both the passive sides of linguistic activity. Linguistic activity, like mathematical activity, has four main functions. In maths we have addition, multiplication, subtraction and division. And just as division is like the opposite or passive side of multiplication, so hearing is the passive side of speaking. And just as subtraction is the passive side of addition, so reading is the passive side of writing. And just as it is easier to do big subration sums than it is to do long division without a calculator, so it is that the beginner until fluency is gained will find the passive activity of reading to be easier than the passive activity of hearing.

In reading, we provide in our heads our own “voice” for the words and we “listen” to that. But it is a voice that we have made and therefore it will contain the mispronunciations that we have picked up. We may hear the same word back read by a native speaker and it may sound different because the pronunciation is not what we expected. The Goldlist can help here if you note with words in the goldlist any unexpected pronunciation to an English word if you’re learning English or other not precisely phonetic language.

In the main the reason why we do not understand a spoken text as well is that the tempo it is presented in will be someone else’s tempo. When we read we adjust the speed of the internal voice to match what we are comfortable with. We pause when we need to think about a word, whereas in a spoken text the voice carries on while we still need to chew on an earlier word, and we get lost. We can also see an unfamiliar word and analyse it for etymological clues, and do things that we don’t have time for when listening to a text. If we do get lost we can repeat it.

So don’t expect following a spoken text to be equally easy as following a written one. Not unless you are learning Japanese, that is. And even there, the speech of some speakers, especially male speakers, is quite hard to follow. Bear in mind also that some languages swallow half the letters, for instance French and Danish, and many accents of English. Accents in themselves cause listening comprehension to be much tougher than reading comprehension, especially in languages like German or English which contain strong dialects. In Polish even the Zakopane accent is not so hard to follow – I heard some on the radio this morning as a local was commenting record visitors to the place last long weekend. Kashubian is the biggest challenge maybe, or a thick Silesian, but Kashubian counts as another language and even Silesian is not as far from Polish as some of the dialects around England are from one another. People speaking southern England dialect can follow standard Australian or American with much greater facility than they can follow broad Geordie or Scouser once they get going. Please make sure you are following people who are speaking a form of English that is fairly standard. Many Poles went to Ireland and pride themselves on getting an Irish brogue, but the downside is that they aren’t all that understandable to other native speakers. Irish is a lovely accent when it’s authentic, but it’s not one the foreigner should be aiming to copy for international use if they can help it. I’m not talking Terry Wogan here, I’m talking a strong Irish accent.

So, what tools can one use to improve listening comprehension? In the good old days, in schools we used to be given dictees in French – less so in German as it was more self evident how things were written as long as a person wasn’t speaking to us in Schwaebisch. I understand that ‘dyktando’ was also used in Polish schools. You can actually give yourself a dictation by taking an audiobook and sampling a paragraph at random on the mp3, writing it out from listening to the actor read and then checking it back to the book.

You don’t even need to write it, you can simply listen to an audiobook paragraph by paragraph, then read the original to see if you understood everything, and then mark the words you still don’t know, and then use the translation to get those words, which by the way should be added to the Goldlist headlist. This linguistic Triathlon is a great way to develop both the passive skills.

The best way to go about it is to see if you can get three things for the same novel or short story: first the audiobook read by a good actor on mp3 on audible.com or other sources. There’s no shortage of material out there on the net and not all of it is paid, if you get my drift. second you need the English original and finally you need a Polish translation. It probably helps if at least one of the two written ones is in printed form – a print-out if not a book bought or borrowed from the library. By using this method you’ll gradually come to see that you need the Polish translation less and less and you need to read the material in addition to just hearing it less and less. Also you’ll familiarise yourself with some of the jewels of English literature. Take twentieth century literature in order to have a more modern standard – we tend not to talk these days in the way people did in Dickens or Jane Austen, but in due course if you like the process you’ll be able to graduate to them.

If you cannot get into novels and literature, you could choose films. Films with a lot of talking in are preferable. Green Mile, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Fight Club – these are all better than pure action movies like James Bond which will take your time up with car chases and sexy women which could more profitably be spent on language learning. The thing to do here is to get DVDs – preferably hiring them, and play about with the soundtracks and titles. Basically when the DVD was born the language lab died.

Here are the additional bits I wanted to say:

The problem which you are encountering is particularly noticeable when learning your first foreign language. Sometimes the ear is slow in reacting to the different sounds of a language, especially when being in a country for the first time and hearing native speakers when all one has had has been other more adavcned foreign learners as speakers. This training the ear to accept strange sounds is different to activation, and can take a couple of months of being in a country. Once one has “broken” this stubborn ear then for subsequent languages the problem doesn’t tend to happen.

The other thing is that as long as you have a small vocabulary, of only a few thousand words, then you will come up against unfamiliar words more often and they will put the ear off track all the more often. A vocabulary of 15,000 words or more means that you are really familiar with 99.9% of what you hear so interruptions to the flow are that much rarer and one’s ability to follow for longer periods that much easier. Therefore working on the Goldlist to gain really large vocabularies will also help the ear to become attuned.

True to Type?


Photo of keyboard and pen

The pen is mightier than the board

Over on YouTube this morning, a viewer called Fightingnate commented on the  second Goldlist film  with the following very good question:

How do you not think you use muscle memory for typing on a keyboard? how do you think some people can type 100 wpm? Why do you think there are typing lessons and programs? Typing (if you type correctly and efficiently) requires just as much memory as writing.

I knew immediately that the answer to this question was going to go well beyond 500 letters (more than 500 words, for that matter) so I left there a request to look the answer up here and I hope the asker and some others who are interested will read it here, and also commenting at length of desired is easier here, as long as you have a wordpress account, or have something like facebook or one of the other methods for logging in here.

I am ready to admit that there are memory functions associated with typing. It’s a perfectly valid observation that there are lessons and programs to learn typing which certainly require the use of memory, including long-term memory and the long-term memory will certainly be involved in learning to type.

Whether it “requires just as much memory as writing” as you claim I would suggest is an unfounded statement. It may be true or it may not be, I am uncertain that it can even be measured reliably. However what I would say is that even if typing is more demanding on the memory than stylus writing is, that still wouldn’t make it optimal for language learning to the long-term memory.

In a sense you might take as an analogy that using GPS will still engage your memory, but working things out with an old fashioned map may be a more natural way of remembering how to get to a place. Typing numbers into a calculator may help you churn numbers out faster at the cashier’s equivalent of the secretary’s standard of 100 wpm, but whether it really helps you retain the parts of maths that need to be rote learned as well as paper and pencil calculations do, well, I doubt it.

Learning to the long-term memory is, I believe, done best when we are not giving to our brains signals that we are making efforts to learn, and not making our brains feel as if they are working. A more relaxed way of writing is preferable. Maybe for Generation Y-ers and Z-ers you feel more relaxed writing in typing than in stylus writing, but that is a bit unnatural. The way of writing with a stylus developed thousands of years ago, if you include knives and brushes as well as pens and pencils in that class of implements, and it was developed in a sense “naturally” in a form basically dictated by the biological shape of the human hand as well as the workings of the human brain. The keyboard layout on the other hand is an attempt to impose a certain predictated logic onto a flat surface and in a sense we have to use an extra layer of effort and memory to remember where, in two dimensional space, a letter is. In a sense the typist can remember the shape of the word and will find that enduring typoes bear witness to the fact that memory – if at times erroneous memory – is involved in that process. But you are only feeling keys. You are not feeling a word being crafted by your hand against the paper. There is no big difference between the feel of one key and another.

The keyboard restricts the movement of your body to one place, while in stylus writing you are moving your hand forward (even in right to left or other systems that still counts as forward) across the sheet. You can also move your body in relation to the writing more easily. You can hold the book at more different angles and in different positions. You can grasp the pen and book from a standing start or take it with you anywhere far more easily than the computer. Even the tiny computers which we now call telephones bear testimony in their new stylus-imitating input methods that the keyboard is not the most relaxed or efficient way of doing things.

Even when the speed typist sits and types her 100 wpm, or his in order not to be sexist, and shows up a certain advantage keyboard writing can have over stylus writing at high speeds, can the substance of what is being typed be remembered just as well as with the typist or handwriter going at much lower speeds? I venture to suggest not. The long-term memory is a subconscious sampler – that’s a key tenet of the Goldlist method and if it were not so then the whole system wouldn’t work. But what determines the sampling rate? Is it the same rate at high speeds or is it a sample of so many passes per second regardless of the amount of material? We don’t know for sure, but I believe that the way perception works will make it a bit of both. You certainly remember more details of a street when you walk down it than when you drive down it, but the ratio of details remembered to time spent could well be lower on the walk, as at slow pass speeds some items will be sampled more than once.

Pen writing doesn’t fade like a screen when you work on it in the sun. You don’t need electricity and you can carry the book with far less weight on a walk. Writing languages in it which are full of diacritics, or writing in Japanese or other character-based languages will be for more English-speaking learners far easier to do. And most of all it will be personal. Your handwriting is special because it is your personal body language in paper form. For literacy, handwriting something rather than typing it is the equivalent to saying something with your own voice instead of letting off a recording of somone else saying it, and just listening. The printed page may be all your words but your body language has not melded with the language as it does with the handwritten page. You do not become one with it. And that is why the specific memory aid that comes with that melding and crafting of the written words in writing as nice as you can make it and done with a sense of the pleasure derived from such craftsmanship, is not really delivered by the process of typing.

Most of us do a lot of typing, sone of us are even threatened with Repetitive Stress Injury from the amount we do, and also we have fewer and fewer occasions to cultuivate the hand and as a result when we need nice handwriting it evades us. The insistence on having Goldlist Method a handwritten method is not anti-machine – it simply reminds us that there is an alternative to the machine and that the computer is not the only tool when it comes to language learning – even a language learning method that bases on a quite mathematical algorithm.

Answers to Krzysztof on layout of Goldlist books.


Snail shell

As it goes around the cycle, it gets less and less. The outer cycle is like bronze, the middle like silver, the inner like gold.

One Polish viewer, Krzysztof, asked me the following questions about the Goldlist over in Youtube, and agreed that I could answer in English and over here so that more readers can benefit. I haven’t translated the questions, as the questions will be obvious from the answers.

Witam.

Chciałbym zadać kilka pytań o Gold List, otóż mam taki który ma 40 lini jednak gdy piszę 25 słów pod sobą to jest to mało czytelne, czy nie mogło to by być 20 słów ?

If you have large handwriting, and go over the lines, you may need to look for another book with larger lines, but these ones frequently don’t make up 40 lines per page. In such cases instead of having 25 lines in the headlist, you might need to reduce it to 20. 100 is easily divided by 20, so dividing the headlist up into 20s instead of 25s is a very valid alternative method.

Even for people who can easily fit in 25 in the headlist, limiting to 20 allows the goldlist book to take an alternative form which may appeal to some people: 20 for Headlist in the top left, then D1 (1st distillation) on the top right has maybe 14 words of the 20, in the middle right you have D2 with let’s say 10 words, and D3 on the bottom right with say 7 words. You would then be coming back up the left hand side with D4 on the bottom left on about 5, and have D5 on the left in the middle with maybe 3, and just take maybe 2 forward to the next book, if by that stage you even wanted a second book. I’d see it as a perfectly viable alternative.

Czy dobrze zrozumiałem, iż nie mam się tego uczyć, czy może warto to przeczytać kilka razy po napisaniu ?
Ciężko mi uwierzyć, że po przepisaniu 25 słów w języku niemieckim zapamiętam je.

You won’t have learned them all, only about 30% will have stuck. But you won’t know which really have stuck unless you leave it lie for two weeks at least at each stage. If you want to read your page out loud once, after writing it, that’s not likely to be a problem, but for pleasure. Repetition is what starts to feel like forced learning – you switch on your conscious memorizing and the unconscious one turns off – they don’t both work at once, you see. And the unconscious memory is the one that samples effortlessly a certain percentage of all you see when you are not actively trying to memorize, direct to the long-term memory.

Jednak to pan się zna, więc proszę o radę.
Te słowa mam pisać pod sobą, czy w jednej linijce można napisać

I would write them one at a time in the headlist. Condensing gradually into phrases or fictional book titles is fine in later distillations, and helps the memory process.

Po co są następne zeszyty brązowe, czy tam trzeba robić kolejne słowa z danego języka czy kolejne destylacje ?
Jednak pan mówił, że na kolejne destylacje jest zeszyt srebrny.

The second bronze book keeps going with the headlist and distillations 1-3 when you have run out of space in the first one. The silver book can be a lot thinner and contains distillations 4-7.

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 How-To-Learn-Any-Language.com’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 www.oioioio.com 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.

A Question about the Russian Future by Shannon


IMG_2070

One viewer on the youtube channel, a lady called Shannon, wrote to me the following question:

Hello,

Could you please tell me the English equivalent for the Russian simple and compound future tense.

I think I’ve understood both past tenses, but the future tense is something I’m still struggling to get my head around.

Regards,
Shannon

The problem is that they are not really tenses, they are aspects of a single future tense.

Now in English we have aspects, but we don’t always use a verb to show the aspects, sometimes we use other words in the sentence.

Let’s take the example of “yest’/s’yest”. If I say in Russian “Ya s’yem ves’ …” then the expected word afterwards might be “tort” – I will eat the whole cake.

If a Russian says “Ya budu yest’ ves’…” then the rest of the sentence that suggests itself is “den’ ” – I will eat all day.

In this case in English if you can replace “eat” with “eat up” then you know that it’s a perfective aspect. In English it’s not incorrect to say “I will eat the whole cake”, or you can also stress the perfective nature of that action (although it won’t have a very perfecting effect on the figure) by saying “I will eat the cake up”.

Contrast that with the second sentence. “I will eat all day”. You can’t say “I will eat up all day”, it becomes meaningless. You can, of course say something like “All day long tomorrow, I’ll be eating up my fussy children’s left-overs” – in Russian this repetitive future performance of a perfective action would call for bringing in the iterative suffix. “Budu doyedyvat’ “sounds a little clumsy but would give that kind of meaning. The “yv” part of that verb being the iterative suffix.

So in the case of a sentence where in English we could use a simple verb or a phrasal verb, especially a phrasal verb where the sense involves finishing something (eat up, do in, beat up, bring in, etc) we can get a good idea of whether to use a perfective or imperfective future aspect in Russian by asking us where the phrasal verb is just as good if not better than the simple verb, as in the above “eat the cake up”

What about cases where you don’t have a phrasal verb indicating completion to hand? Well, sometimes there are aspectival pairs in English that we don’t even realise are aspectival pairs because this is almost subliminal in our language and not explicit as in Slavonic. So I could give you two sentences:

1. I will fish all day tomorrow

2. I will catch many fish tomorrow.

Which is future imperfective? That’s right, the first. Budu lovit ryby ves’ den’ zavtra. The second is perfective. Tomorrow I will not just fish I will catch many fish. Poymu mnogo ryb, zavtra.

how about this one:

1. He will speak to me about the changes this afternoon.

2. He will tell me about the changes this afternoon.

In which of these am I expressing subliminally that I’m not necessarily expecting complete information? That’s right, the first. In the second, I expect the transmission of complete facts, not just blah-blah. So speak and tell are an aspectival pair.

And sure enough, you find the same in govorit’/skazat’ in Russian. You never hear “on budet skazat” – the closest is if you make it iterative “on budet skazyvat mne raznye veshchi” He will be telling me various things. He will, in other word, repeatedly perform the perfective action of transferring orally various complete pieces of information. He will speak to me about the changes – on budet govorit’ so mnoy o peremenakh means that I’m focussing menatlly on the fact that he is going through the motions of informing me, regardless of whether any actual units of meaningful information, any ‘whole story’ is transferred to me in the process. “On skazhet mne o peremenakh posle obeda” on the other hand means that I’m expecting to hear the whole caboodle from him after lunch.

One of the best ways to understand this is by looking at what we mean in English when we differentiate “until” and “by”. Most languages have a single word for this pair, and in Slavic it’s aspect which gives away which one is needed. Russians and Poles say “do”, German’s have “bis”, but we have two words and we can’t understand why foreigners are always muddling up “until” and “by”.

So you’ll hear Slavs saying “I need you to write the report until Thursday”. At this, you might say “what happens after that, then, does someone else take over?” This sentence in English contains no markers that getting it done before then is required – on the contrary the marker in “until” rather means just keep on going up to a certain time point, and finishing doesn’t enter into it.

So Thursday comes and you are asked for the report, and you hand in a huge 100 page opus and immediately the boss asks “Where’s the Executive Summary?” And so you say “There’s no Executive Summary – how can there be one if the report isn’t finished?” “But I asked you to write the report until Thursday!” “I did! I was writing it all the time, only taking short breaks for food and sleep. That’s why the thing is 100 pages long. but you didn’t tell me it had to be done BY Thursday!”

The boss doesn’t understand this, as to him “until” and “by” are synonyms and not markers of aspect, and promptly sacks the Employee for over-correct use of English.

So you can see from this example that if he had really meant “until”, in Russian he would have used a future imperfective. “Budete pisat’ …” For the meaning “by” he would have used a Russian future perfective “Napishite”.

I hope that helps you get a grip on the idea. If it has, then that is a milestone on your journey towards knowing Russian.

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