Russian grammar overview and dictionary from Cornell

Earlier today I was looking around online for some Russian material, namely a grammar overview. I ended up finding that, and quite a lot more!

For grammar, Cornell has the Beginning Russian Grammar page. While all of the essentials of Russian grammar seem to be covered there, the explanations might seem a bit short for beginners. However, it’s a good reference page if you’re already well along the Russian language road.

What I found far more interesting, however, is their Russian Dictionary Tree. It’s an expanded version of this book, 5000 Russian Words: With All Their Inflected Forms and Other Grammatical Information. The authors of the book, who apparently work at Cornell, have made the expanded online version available for anyone to use. Considering the stand-alone CD version offered by Lexicon Bridge Publishers costs $54.50, this is quite a deal, to have it online for free!

Here’s the description of the Russian Dictionary Tree from Lexicon Bridge Publishers:

This 12,000-entry dictionary allows you to search for a Russian or English word, and gives you all the forms and all the endings for every word. Unlike many electronic dictionaries, it is not an abridged version of a printed dictionary. On the contrary, definitions are far more detailed, and many entries contain examples and extensive notes on style and usage.

I’ve looked up a few words thus far, and they aren’t kidding – it’s quite thorough! All of the words I’ve looked up have had a complete declension table, but most of them also had example sentences showing how the word was used.

To use the dictionary, there’s only one thing you have to do: install one of Cornell’s Russian fonts. This is because they use a special font that allows them to place accent marks over letters. It’s not hard to install, though, if you follow their short instructions.

Using monolingual dictionaries for foreign language learning…

… is it worth the trouble?

I’ve read in a few different places that using a monolingual dictionary which is in your target language is a good way to advance with your studies. I can certainly see the logic in it – if the dictionary is all in your target language, simply looking up a word exposes you to authentic language.

However, while that sounds great, the practicality of it is definitely in question. I can comment on this from personal experience. A few years ago, I was able to get, after much poking around online, a copy of Langenscheidt’s Großwörterbuch: Deutsch als Fremdsprache. (They have since printed a new paperback version, so while the wait is pretty bad – 4 to 6 weeks – you can get a copy of it.)

This dictionary is made specifically for learners of German, hence “Deutsch als Fremdsprache” – “German as (a) foreign language.” I got it with the hopes that I could switch to using it almost exclusively. At the time, I thought my reading level in German was at a high enough level for me to do that, at least with a dictionary that was written for learners. What I got, however, was a pretty big surprise, and what can only be called mixed success.

Book Cover

Certainly, some words that I looked up in my new dictionary, I would read the definition and understand it almost right away. However, with the majority of words that I wanted to look up, I ran into a fairly big problem: I didn’t know quite a few of the words used in the definition! This often led to a humorous “chase down the words” session. I’d start writing down all-German definitions on a piece of paper (or two…), just to figure out the meaning of one word. While I suppose all the reading in German could be seen as beneficial, when you’re trying to read a text and you have to stop for 30-45 minutes to figure out one word, frustration can set in. This problem could be particularly bad with words dealing with concepts instead of physical things or actions.

Of course, my problems were not with the dictionary per se – the dictionary is quite nice! – it was me that was the problem. The monolingual dictionary would have worked great if I’d known all or most of the words used in the definitions, but that just wasn’t the case.

So, the question is: is it worth using a monolingual dictionary to help you learn a foreign language, or is it too much trouble? I think my answer would have to be a yes – with some stipulations. Namely, that you use your monolingual dictionary as a supplement to a bilingual one. Certainly somewhere in your language learning career, you will probably be able to exclusively use the monolingual one. But until you’re at a fairly advanced stage in the language, I think trying to use only a monolingual dictionary is more of a headache than an aid to learning. If your experience ends up being like mine, you’ll find yourself struggling to understand many of the definitions.

Perhaps a balance could be struck, though: try to use your monolingual dictionary first, and if you find that you don’t understand a definition, only then look it up in your bilingual dictionary. Or perhaps even try to figure out the definition in your monolingual dictionary for say, 5, looking up words you don’t understand. If, after that time is up, you’ve not figured it out, whip out your bilingual dictionary.

At any rate, I do recommend getting a monolingual dictionary in your target language at some point or another – just don’t toss out your bilingual one when the monolingual one arrives. 🙂

Looking for a good Russian news podcast? Here’s one.

The Slavic department of the George Washington University offers a bi-weekly podcast (or webcast, as they call it). The webcast, entitled News of the week in simplified Russian, offers, as the title of the webcast indicates, summaries of the news from the past 2 weeks. 🙂 Snippet from the site:

News of the week in simplified Russian is posted to the web bi-weekly and delivers a survey of the previous two weeks’ news in simplified standard Russian Listeners of Voice of America’s “Special English” broadcasts will recognize the slightly slower rate of speech and textual redundancy which characterize these webcasts.

Why News of the week in simplified Russian ? Back in Soviet times, the news was easy to understand. The propaganda-laden messages were predictable and the diction clear and slow. Post-communist newscasts feature telegraphic speech and slurry diction. Our webcasts serve as a stepping stone between the teacher talk of the classroom and the “real” Russian of the media.

Authentic news. The news itself is taken from a number of Russian sites, including Lenta.Ru, Vesti.Ru, and other authentic sites.

Perhaps one of the best features of the site is that there are full transcripts of every episode they’ve ever done. It’s recommended that you listen to the audio first without the text, to get the most out of it – but once you get stuck, you can always fall back on the transcripts. Not only are transcripts available, but there are also exercises for every single episode.

The archives for the website go back to 2003, so there’s a lot of content here. The interface of the website is a bit clunky, but it’s worth fighting with.

In regards to language level, the webcasts are recommended for “students with listening skills at ACTFL Intermediate Mid to Intermediate High. In most cases, that corresponds to college Russian at the end of second-year.”

Last (but certainly not least!), the webcasts are a project of the National Capital Language Resource Center (NCLRC).

Balancing formal and informal vocabulary

A native German, kittyiseverywhere, commented on my May German vocabulary list, at Language Geek’s former location ( (Here is the complete vocabulary list for May.) Here’s her comment:

Hey there, some words you have on here are pretty uncommon in daily life ;) if you still need sample sentences, I’m happy to help (I own three blogs here – you can write me under (her email address) in MSN ^^)

Her comment highlights an issue that all language learners must deal with: what words are used in everyday life, and what words are typically reserved for news articles or other registers?

Even though words might make sense in a sentence meaning-wise, they might seem peculiar, in that they don’t really fit into the context. For example, let’s look at some English adjectives that have similar meanings:

  • great
  • awesome
  • exquisite
  • marvelous

Now, all of those words, while not exact, mean similar things. Someone learning English might find it okay to use “exquisite” in a sentence, when the word they really should be using is probably “great” or “awesome.” A native speaker of English would probably recognize this issue right away, i.e., which of these sentences sounds like something you’d hear in an everyday conversation:

  1. Our trip to the amusement park was exquisite / marvelous.
  2. Our trip to the amusement park was great / awesome.

There’s nothing really wrong with the first sentence – a native speaker of English would understand the message being conveyed – but it still sounds pretty bizarre.

So how does one deal with this issue? How do you figure out what words a native German (or Russian or whatever) would use, and what words they’d find to be a bit odd in an everyday context? You deal with it through lots and lots of exposure to different types of language material. A language learner has to realize that the language style and vocabulary that the news site Deutsche Welle uses will be quite different from the language style and vocabulary that say, a personal German blog uses. The differences can be easily seen in your native language (English, in my case). Do I write on my blogs the same way journalists write on, say, BBC News? Do I use the same vocabulary? Of course not.

It’s easy to forget this, however, when learning a foreign language. A language learner can fall into the trap of seeing all foreign language material as basically “the same” – it’s in the same target language, so all of the vocabulary, styles, expressions, etc. can be used in any context. This is wrong, and you need to watch out for it. You don’t talk the same way at a rock concert as you do at a formal wedding dinner, do you? 🙂

So, when learning a foreign language, make sure you have lots of examples from various sources – both formal and informal. More formal or “reserved” examples are easily found on lots of news sites. On the other hand, with the explosion of blogs during the past few years, there are countless sources for informal language all over the internet. Reading personal blogs in particular is a good way to gain access to everyday speech in your target language. Casual podcasts in your target language are another source for everyday speech, for example, Schlaflos in München offers a huge amount of casual German speech for learners of German.

Finally, it should be noted that most decent dictionaries will tell you if a word is strictly used in informal situations or is typically offensive. In one of my German-English dictionaries, for example, many words are marked as “umgangssprachlich” (colloquial). Other words are marked as “formell” (formal), impersonal, offensive, etc. However, this is rather rare in most dictionaries, in that while these markers are applied to some words, most words have nothing of the sort. You are given the meanings of the word, and are not told whether the word is formal, informal, offensive, etc. It’s up to you to know how the word is used, and in what context. To be able to do that, you have to be exposure to various forms of the language you’re studying.

May vocabulary list complete

I posted back on the 14th of May that I was going to try and add 5 German words to my “to learn” vocabulary list. It now being June 1st, the list is officially complete (more on that shortly, however!)

I fell a little bit short of my goal. Since I started on the 14th, and the month ended on the 31st, I had 17 days. 5 words per day, for 17 days, should come out to 85 words total. I ended up with 72. I missed some days completely due to being swamped with other work; other days, I did far more than 5 words. All in all, I’m happy with the results. I fell a little short of my goal, but 72 words isn’t too bad. For June, I think I’m going to try and do 7 words per day.

In regards to the list being complete, it is complete, in that I won’t be adding any more words to it. However, a huge proportion of the words don’t have example sentences. I’m trying to go back and get sample sentences for all of the words, but if you want to help, that’d be great, too, particularly if you’re a native German speaker. You can drop me an email at langgeek (at) gmail (dot) com, if you want to contribute example sentences.

More Russian cursive writing videos

I posted back at the end of March that Natalia of A Spoonful of Russian was making videos of how to write Russian cursive letters. In the videos, she also sounds out the letters. I hadn’t checked A Spoonful of Russian for a while – until today actually! – but it looks like she’s finished up her series. Here are links to all of the videos, along with the letters that are covered in each one:

And of course, don’t just watch the videos and leave her site. She’s got a lot of good material there, both in her regular podcasts as well as in her Downloads section.

German vocabulary list for May updated

I just went through my vocabulary notebook and added a bunch of words to my May, 2007 vocabulary list. While a large number of the words don’t have them yet, I’m also trying to find example sentences / usages of each word, to make the list more helpful to me, as well as to others. After Kelly mentioned it, I’ve started using Google search to find example sentences. It’s actually pretty effective, and doesn’t take much time at all, at least for words that are used often in everyday speech and writing.

Vocabulary goals

I’ve decided to copy (hey, at least I’m honest) edwinlaw’s plan of learning so many words per day. I’ve created a Resources page, which links to the lists I’ve worked on thus far (only one, for German, currently). I’m planning on 5 words per day, at least for the first month. I got started yesterday, but as can be seen, there’s more than 5 words on the list. During my studying of an article in German, I just kept going and going, so I decided to copy out all of the new words that I’d written down in my notebook. Starting either tonight or tomorrow, I’m going to try and learn 5 new German words per day.

Heavy Russian vocabulary learning is on hold at the moment. I’m still exposing myself to some Russian, particularly in the listening department, but I just don’t have time for a lot of active studying of it right now. College classes and German are eating up most of my time.