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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.

What to make of illiterate “romaji” Russian courses, or audio only courses?

Today over on the Google Group “Huliganov and Friends”, I wrote an article in reponse to one thread:

So if you follow that link you should see the whole thread, but just for some context here I’ll include the post just before mine, by Harry, which I basically agree with:

Nola I am with you.  I have looked at books that have no Cyrillic and
they are a joke.  Even for the absolute beginner, and we all were
there at one time and confused.  I think these books are attractive to
some because let’s face it the Cyrillic alphabet is intimidating to a
beginner.  If you are serious about learning this beautiful language
don’t waste your money on books like this.  Since the language is
purely phonetic it is essential to understand the alphabet before
going very far.  This helps a great deal when you hear words and can
recognize verb conjugation or the case of the word which Nola has
pointed out.  Unless you recognize these two things you may recognize
the words the other person is saying but you will not have a clue as
what they are trying to communicate.  Learning phrases is useless if
you can not understand the person’s response.

I have reviewed a lot of learning programs and of course everybody has
their own preferences.  Personally, I am impressed with the Michel
Thomas method.  The format is an instructor with a male and female
student as she teaches them.  The advantage of this method is that you
get a lot of grammar explanations on the spot for both male and female
verbiage.  Hope I it is OK to plug the course here.  I would be
interested in Doctor Victor’s input.  I love his course and
methodology but the lessons are incomplete.  After you are comfortable
with Rl101 and Rl102 you will be hungry for more.


OK, so here’s my reponse to the thread, not just what Harry said although I do refer to it in one or two points:

There is no point in books on Russian which are simply written in
transcribed Latin letters. I understand why books about Japanese need
to be written first off with romaji, I understand why western learners
of Mandarin need to lean on pinyin for a while. I can see that with
three separate sets of consonants depending on which tone group the
word is in, learners of Thai need to use their own clumsy Latin
transcription system (or pick one of a number of conflicting ones)
I’ll even go so far as to say that because of the lack of vowels
(although you can add them, of course) Arabic and Hebrew learners need
to lean on their own alphabets for a while. The shorter the better.

Gerald Ford wearing an ushanka and Leonid Brez...

"Mr Brezhnev, I've seen your name written in a number of different ways, could you tell me what the right one is?" "Sure, comrade. Ze right vay iss ze Russian vay, simply as zat!"

Now you probably DO need to know how to transcribe Russian into
“western” if you intend to go far with it, but then what you need to
know is that each language has its own system for transcribing
Russian. So the person whose eyebrows are similar to mine, and who is
older than me so I can’t even say I thought of them first, is known as
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev in the English speaking world, but you just
look at his wikipedia entries, you’ll find the following:

German: Leonid Iljitsch Breschnew
French: Léonid Ilitch Brejnev (you’ll also see them writing the ending
in “eff” in older texts)
Czech: Leonid Iljič Brežněv
Spanish: Leonid Ilich Brézhnev
Polish: Leonid Iljicz Breżniew
Italian: Leonid Il’ič Brežnev (which is bizarre, as those signs aren’t
even part of the Italian language)
Danish: Leonid Iljitj Bresjnev

So while there’s general agreement about the “Leonid” with only the
French dissenting, and that only because of the demands of their
farmers, we have in a sample of eight languages including English,
eight different ways of spelling his patronymic and eight different
ways of spelling his family name!

And they are all quite correct, for the language they are used in.

If there were a single international system for the transliteration of
Russian, a kind of Russian pinyin (there is actually, but only really
used by librarians and people quoting scientific papers) that they
would look after, then there would be a bit more marginal value in
using it to learn, but even in that case it would be stupid, given
that actual cyrillics can be learned so quickly. Thousands have
learned cyrillics off my 101 series. If it’s taking more that two or
three weeks then the person either isn’t getting the method right or
they are not very adept, and either way that gate will prevent those
people wasting their time getting into the meat of the language, which
they probably won’t be able to get their heads round either, if they
baulked at the alphabet, so it’s a mercy for them.

So I just demonstrated that with a book on Russian in English letters,
not only will you not communicate properly in Russia, but also you
won’t communicate properly with people who did the same thing as you
did but coming from other language groups, even neighbouring languages
to ours. So it really is a pointless exercise, other than to make
money for the author, of course, as it’s an easier book to typeset,
and will attract its share of buyers despite being hopeless,
especially if they are not honest enough to describe online or in the
paper catalogue the absence of proper cyrillics.

Thankfully with things like Amazon we have the opportunity to add our
own reviews, and I’d really encourage you to flag up any language
books which don’t teach proper literacy. Both in Russian and in any
other language – the new TY series have removed proper literacy from a
number of their books and this really deserves to be flagged.

That doesn’t mean that audio only courses like Pimsleur or the
superior Michel Thomas method by Natasha Bershadski (should be –
dskaya, of course, which is not a great start – I hope she doesn’t
teach the language that way getting the genders of adjectives all
wrong) which Harry talks about hoping I won’t mind (of course not!)
are not valuable. They might be a nice entry-level way to see if you
like the sound and the kind of structures that you have ahead before
you ever put pero to bumaga in Russian. What the course consists of
I’ll come to in a second

I got told off by my friend Harold Goodman (I hope he’s still my
friend!) who did Michel Thomas’ Mandarin Course for suggesting in a
forum ways in which these courses could be available for less than the
cover price, and given that the cover prices of all MT courses fell on
Amazon by 30% (looks like what I was saying and some others too
started filtering back to Hodder) and given that you have to
appreciate the work the authors and everyone else put into this, and
most overridingly given that there won’t be any more courses in the
new series of MT if they’re not making money, and I seriously want
Harold to make the Hebrew course, I shall not be giving that advice
out any more. If you know it, you know it – and if you don’t, you
don’t. If you want something free, what’s on Youtube is free.

A course like Michel Thomas method contains generally 8 CDs of about
an hour in length for the foundation course. The first two of these
will be a repetition of the two CDs in the introductory course, hence
the latter is not worth buying unless all you want is an answer to the
question whether the method works for you or not. I’ll give you the
answer to that, if it doesn’t work, nothing will, so just go ahead and
buy the foundation course, especially while it’s 30% off. After this
you get an “advanced” course (it’s not really “advanced”, off course,
expect in comparison with the foundation course) and that has 4 CDs
with the pace slightly upped so that you really score as much vocab
again off the advanced course as you did on the Foundation course. And
then after that you get for most languages a vocab course (for Greek
there isn’t a vocab MT course but the authress has craftily made her
own Chinnor-based vocab book and CD set and Amazon sells it of course
as a set with her two MT products) and in the case of MT Russian you
get 4 CDs. And you are getting drilled on the vocab as it emerges –
you are using it in sentences that also reinforce recently learned

So if you take the three together you have 16 hours of recordings.
Used properly, ie with the pause button, you’re going to use 50 hours
of your time or more to go through the three level course. Equivalent
class room time would have cost a good deal more of course, but you
would have been able to ask questions. But I’m really no fan of the
language classroom, not as an efficient means of learning languages,
anyhow, however pleasant and collegial it may be.

And maybe we can say that Pareto’s rule has applied to MT’s method
course, that these 50 hours, spent efficiently, will give you 80% of
what 250 hours of conventional learning would have given. That may be
a bit overgenerous on my part, as I am still not convinced that a lot
of what goes on in the lessons isn’t going into the short term memory.
Only a staged presentation system that goes over two weeks can really
tell you that. But on the other hand if you don’t rush at a Michel
Thomas course like a bull in a china shop, but take it relaxed, and go
back after two weeks and check you can still do it – don’t try to
learn while you are doing it – then you may well find that the key
drivers of the goldlist method as regards short and long term memory
can also come into play in the MT method.

However, all of this still only gets you, regardless of the ambitious
names of the courses, at a level where you will be close to entry
point once you start actually writing in Russian. If you did the MT
course, you’ll feel a familiarity with the words when you come to
write them. While doing the MT course, an absolute beginner might do
my RL 101 which keeps the actual Russian content intentionally low for
the first half – those cyrillics equally well apply to almost all
languages written in cyrillics. And then that beginner should drill
the Russian alphabet as I say, by writing his own language in
cyrillics. Or they can learn (using Wikipedia, for example, or Google
translate) how place names and personal names are transcribed into
cyrillics by Russians. That will be a very good drill for cyrillics,
as well as be useful for the future for the learner to know, but won’t
conflict much with what the MT tutor Natasha is presenting the MT way.
It’s coming in from a wholly different direction.

Then when you finish all that MT has to offer and also feel really
comfortable with cyrillics as a writing system, then you go an get a
nice, traditional book and put the two together, or you can watch what
there is of my RL 102 course, an unfinished work as we all know, and
go to the course book from there.

Before I finish I will say that a learner’s book should have the
cyrillics with stresses on the stressed vowels and the two dots on the
‘yo’, but also make it clear to students that they shouldn’t get used
to them. I decided in the video course that as I was sitting there
giving the pronunciation for the words on screen anyway, that neither
of these crutches were necessary, and so it is in real Russian. Which
you may say is ironic.

Hope this was useful.

Viktor D. Huliganov

Questions on the Goldlist methodology for university students

"Arabic Language" in the Arabic Al-B...

When studying Arabic or Hebrew using Goldlist, it is probably more comfortable to place the target language column to the right of the vehicle language column.

The following is a discussion that started with a PM on another forum, but the software in that forum baulked at something in my answer, but I was able to save it here, and I have the person’s permission to publish the correspondence. Which in a way is just as well as here it will benefit more people. The rest is the correspondence.

Hi, I’ll try and lace my answers in with your questions.

— Previous Private Message — Sent by :****** Sent : 16 December 2010 at 8:42am Hello, Sorry for bothering you with some trivial questions, but given that you have created the Goldlist method and learnt Russian, I thought you would be the best person to ask. I study Russian (and Arabic) at university, and although this forum is very good for methods on how to teach oneself a language, I find there aren’t that many resources for university students.

Fair comment. There seems to be less and less for University students, but only more taxes for them to be paying later on. I don’t know how Clegg looks at his face in the mirror.

My first question would be about the extent of the vocabulary I should ideally acquire at university. Indeed, I’m now on my year abroad (3rd years), and will shortly start using the Goldlist method, however, I’m a bit lost regarding the amount of vocabulary I should learn to reach a good degree level, and to some extent, fluency. Read the rest of this entry

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