Polyglot Conference Video on PolyNots

Forgive the self promotion, but for those who were unable to attend the Polyglot Conference in Budapest in May, the conference organisers have now put my presentation onto youtube. It is about Polyglots vs PolyNots : Anthony Lauder - PolyNot - YouTube


Interesting talk - thanks for posting this, Anthony.

But, in a way, you are too relaxed and too nice. You need to shave and polish your head, wear a green muscle vest and sneer and snarl like our friend, Mr C. That way, it wouldn’t matter matter whether you are a “polynot” - you would be a linguisssst! :smiley:


finally I got to see your presentation. I was in Budapest but missed your presentation while I was there. Could you elaborate a bit more on those tests quantifying the number of known words? Why is it such a complicated science? I am particularly interested in that topic because it regularly comes up here at Lingq where some suggest a rate of voocabulary acquisition of some 400 new words per day for languages related to one’s native language. Steve for example reported some 57.000 words in Russian after a couple of years of studying Russian or some 12.000 words (or was it even 20.000?) after some months of studying Czech. From my own learning experience I find those word counts hard to believe.

In your presentation you suggest a rate of some 1000 words per year as an accumulation rate which would sound about right to me. Can you say something more about the methodology of those tests? Wouldn’t the most obvious approach be to expose people to content of some 50.000 word and just count the number of unknown or known words? How long would that take? As I understand it, this is how Lingq generates the estimate of known words based on the number of known words in the Lingq system.


You’re no longer based in China (as I see from your recent post on another thread.)

So what’s up now? You planning to learn Japanese or something?


In your paragraph one, just so I understand, are you saying that I am not telling the truth?

In your paragraph two, the 1000 words referred to by Anthony are probably word families. They refer to the acquisition of words in one’s native-language through the course of one’s life. This has nothing to do with learning another language. The rest of this paragraph is unintelligible to me.

Just to set the record straight, after a year of learning Czech I could read the newspaper and understand radio programs, not entirely but well over 85% for familiar subject. This would not be possible with the vocabulary of 1000 words. I achieved close to the same in Romania because so many of the words are similar to Italian and French, or Slavic languages.

Anthony you are a very enthusiastic and entertaining presenter. You won’t be surprised to hear that I disagree with much of what you had to say. I sat through the presentation and took some notes. I will present these here once I have collected my thoughts.

In fact rather than organize my thoughts I will just present here those issues where I disagree or agree with you, more or less in the order that they were covered in your presentation.

I very much disagree with the polyglot and polynot dichotomy. I do not agree that short-term memory leads to better guessing by polyglots. I think that guessing and inferring and short-term memory are irrelevant. I think polyglots are simply more experienced language learners, people who have found their own ways of learning languages and who are more experienced at doing so. But more than anything else, polyglots are people who spend their time and a lot of time on useful learning activities.

I agree that vocabulary is the key to understanding a text in another language, more than grammar or familiarity with the context.

The fact that a native speaker accumulates new vocabulary at the rate of 1000 words a year doesn’t mean that someone learning a foreign language can only learn 1000 words a year. In fact the foreign language learner is going to learn many more words per year. The adult native speaker is acquiring low-frequency words every year in his own language. The adult foreign-language speaker is acquiring high-frequency words in a foreign language, often cognates, and eventually medium frequency words in his or her area interest. Very often these are words that mean the same as words that the adult already has in his or her own language.

I agree that cramming is not a good idea, being hung up on one meaning or an authoritative dictionary meaning is not a good idea, worrying about how well you know or don’t know what word is unproductive, learning vocabulary thematic groups is not useful, and being over concerned about learning slang is also not useful.

I think learning vocabulary is the key and fundamental activity in language learning. This is for the simple reason that in order to engage in meaningful output, in other words conversation with natives, we need to understand what they are saying. We cannot control which words they are going to use. The native speaker has a much larger active vocabulary than we do. Therefore we need a passive vocabulary that approximates their active vocabulary. I see no purpose in being fluent in 400 words. Whom are you going to have a conversation with if you only understand 400 words?

I agree that excessive flashcarding and Anki addiction is not an effective use of time.

I learn words in context. I learn words from reading things of interest. I don’t worry about frequency or collocations. I simply want to read and listen to things of interest. I do very little intensive vocabulary study. Through my listening and reading, I will naturally get sufficiently intensive study of the most important words, and these words will be relevant to my areas of interest. This happens naturally without me having to make any special effort or needing to focus on lists of frequently used words.

I do not like graded readers other than in languages like Chinese where you simply don’t have enough characters to read anything at the beginning. I have no interest in reading a simplified or dumbed down version of Moby Dick. I would rather read the original on LingQ.

Since I do a lot of my reading on LingQ, I do not need 95% vocabulary coverage in order to read material of interest. Since I can also listen to the same content, I can handle material with 50% known words. If I only read material with 95% known words, it would take me forever to accumulate the vocabulary that I feel I need.

Yes to acquire a large vocabulary you have to read a lot, probably over 1 million words. My statistics at LingQ tell me that I have done that in both Russian and Czech for example.

Personally I have not found it more difficult to learn words or remember words as I grow older.

Yes activation is always difficult. Personally I find it uninteresting to try to speak when I have very few words and simply don’t understand what the native speakers are saying. I am quite convinced that speaking early is not a condition of becoming fluent. If the opportunity presents itself certainly one should speak. But these awkward conversations were I stumble to speak and don’t understand what other people are saying are not something that I pursue in my language study.

I don’t have the impression that traditional language instruction tries to keep the student quiet, as you suggest. Rather classroom teachers try to get the students to engage in role playing and talking to each other and other useless activities.

Since I like my language learning activities to be meaningful, I do not engage in talking to myself in front of a mirror. However if other people enjoy doing that I don’t see any harm in that activity.

To me fluency means being able to speak on a number of subjects and understand what other people are saying. This implies a very large vocabulary. There are no shortcuts.


One more thought on speaking. If we are lucky enough to live in an area where we have lots of opportunity to speak the language, such as in the country where the languages spoken, of course it is a good idea to speak early and often. However most language learners are not in that situation. That is why listening and reading (and LingQing) are such convenient and mobile methods of learning. They are very effective and build up our language potential for when we have the opportunity to speak more. Eventually, to speak well, we have to speak a lot.

Remember, very little of what I presented was my own opinion. I was quoting research findings from several hundred studies from applied linguistics. As noted in the video, I preface the whole presentation with “allegedly” since research findings can be wrong. Having said that. I found some of the research findings pretty convincing - the importance of guessing, for example. At the same time, I recognise that, as a language dunce, I may be too easily persuaded.

The thing about 1000 words in a year definitely seems wrong to me. I can see it might apply to people learning in a traditional classroom context. But if you are exposed 24/7 to a language for 12 months, you will surely soak up several thousand words?

I’m absolutely certain that I learned way more than a thousand words during even my first 6 months in Germany.

(Of course, that’s just a personal anecdote which therefore can’t compete with fancy Clugstonian things like “research”… But still, it was my personal experience, and I doubt whether I’m so very unusual as a language learner?)

@ Jay:

Yes, I am back in Germany, will move to Munich in a couple of weeks for a new job. Language wise, still busy improving in the languages I already speak, especially Chinese. I have not started any new language project since I took on Chinese five years ago.

@ Steve,

I agree with all you said in your response to Anthony, you made very good and valid points there.

Regarding the vocabulary issue, we have been over this a couple of times and the only thing I can say is that I feel that my own word acquisition rate is much slower than what your statistics suggest. I cannot judge your Russian, Czech nor your Romanian but when I listen to your latest Chinese video for instance you certainly have very good flow, above average pronounciation but you do not strike me as someone with a very rich vocabulary. For instance you must have used 经验 some ten times in your video to mean “having experienced something”. First of all 经验 is not often used as a verb but rather as a noun, secondly someone with a rich active vocabulary would use words like 经历,体会,体验,to provide some variation and to employ the subtle differences in meaning of these verbs. Maybe it is all in your passive vocabulary, I honestly don’t know, but from my own learning experience and your active usage of words the Lingq statistics are hard to believe for me (or maybe it is just my inferiority complex…).


Best wishes with your new post. I think you’ll like Bayern - it’s a great place. (And it’s probably the most rightwing place in the whole of Germany too, so you may be able to escape Socialism! :-p)

You are so right about 经验, 经历, 体会, 体验.

经验 n. experience ◆ v. go through; experience
经历 v. go through; undergo; experience ◆ n. experience
体会 v. know/learn from experience; realize ◆ n. knowledge; understanding
体验 v. learn through practice or experience

It’s difficult, even for advanced learners!
What’s more, there are regional differences in usage.
Most learners only learn one expression, and use it.
The other forms are only passive knowledge.

The speech may not sound “beautiful”, but understandable.
In my opinion it is VERY difficult to “provide some variation and to employ the subtle differences in meaning of these verbs”…

Thanks you the entertaining presentation. I enjoyed the video very much.


“The speech may not sound “beautiful”, but understandable.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with his Chinese, no issues with understanding it. Very good flow, natural melody and phrasing. It’s just that his vocabulary does not strike me as particularly rich. I don’t know what his word count is in Chinese but given that he knows 4000+ characters and based on his word counts in other languages I would think he should be in the 10.000 - 20.000 range for sure.

“In my opinion it is VERY difficult to “provide some variation and to employ the subtle differences in meaning of these verbs”…”

Well, knowing how to wield different but similar words may not be easy but it is part of becoming good in a language. I don’t think that mastering synonyms is any more difficult in Chinese compared to other languages.


No matter what you find in dictionaries, I have never heard Chinese use 经验 as a verb. It really sounds 别扭.


I am not sure what points you’re trying to make.

You suggest that 1000 words a year is a likely rate of vocabulary increase. This means that someone learning a foreign language would need 10 years to reach the vocabulary level of a 10 year old. Do you really believe that?

You challenge the credibility of my vocabulary acquisition rate. Yet you won’t use LingQ the way I do. Try it. Try reading over 1 million words and creating over 30,000 LingQs. Try reading texts full of yellow highlighted words and phrases. Then try listening to these texts. And make sure the subject matter is of interest to you. You refuse to do this, and stick by your excel spreadsheet system of keeping track of new vocabulary, while at the same time challenging what I claim to achieve. You can’t have it both ways.

Your criticisms of my Chinese may well be valid. When I type jingyanguo, however, these three characters come up on my Mac Chinese word processor, 经验过, When I Google 经验过 I find examples like the following of it used as a verb.


And of course, as Hape points out, the dictionary says that it can be used as a verb.

However, perhaps it is rarely used this way as you suggest. Perhaps this is an Anglicism on my part. That is probably not the only fault you can find with my Chinese. I will agree that my active vocabulary in Chinese today is limited. But I don’t understand what point you’re trying to make.

I have made it clear many times that if I can recognize the word in any context, I consider that word known. The more words I know in this way, the more I can understand of what I read and listen to. But it certainly doesn’t mean that I can use these words. My focus in language learning is comprehension and massive input. The more words I know, the broader range of material I can read and listen to, and the more words I can learn. When I have an opportunity to speak a lot, my output skills quickly catch up.

I have never lived in a Mandarin speaking environment, where I would have the opportunity to speak Mandarin regularly. I had the luxury of studying full-time for 10 months, 45 years ago. I spent most of my time reading books with glossaries on literature, history, politics and economics. The first book that I read without a glossary was 骆驼祥子 by 老舍 after seven or eight months or so. To do so requires a fairly large vocabulary. I can’t tell you how many words since LingQ was not available at that time.

Since that time, I have visited China a dozen times. I also have many Chinese books and CDs here that I use from time to time, to refresh or improve my Chinese. Over the last 10 years I have focused on learning other languages and have rarely spoken or read or listened to Chinese. I would love to get back to Chinese and if I were to do so I would use LingQ. This would enable me to increase both my passive and active vocabulary. But I fail to see the relevance of all of this to my rate of vocabulary acquisition at LingQ.

Anthony, I was not speaking with reference to research studies. I was only speaking on the basis of my own experience. I am quite skeptical of much language learning research. A lot of it is contradictory. The context of most of this research is usually the classroom. I don’t think there’s any research out there which studies LingQ learners, who have access to our vocabulary acquisition functionality as well as the audio for every lesson, and who have the ability to choose to learn from whatever interests them. In other words I believe that most of this research is based on typical passive classroom learners.

Personally, I do not guess at the meaning of words when I am on LingQ. Any word or phrase that I am unsure about, I save and create a LingQ for. I do agree however that experienced polyglots, and I would include myself in that category, are quite willing to accept uncertainty and a lack of clarity. That is what helps them persevere in texts that they don’t fully understand. But personally, I don’t guess at the meaning, I just move on and leave the meaning unclear.

On the other hand, there were number of statements that you made which were more subjective. You suggested, for example, that we could be fluent with only 400 words and that this was somehow a useful target. This may be a valid strategy for some. I wanted to point out that it is not a strategy that I pursue.

Well, sorry to intervene the discussion between Steve and Friedemann, especially about the word count, the use of LingQ, etc.

I would just like to focus on the usage of “experience”-group you may have doubts on. To be short, both Steve and Friedemann are right. As @u50623 described elaborately in his post, 经验 can be used as a verb, but in everyday conversation, this usage is relatively less applied. If you check the source which Steve quoted, the sentence comes from 艾未未(Ai Weiwei). If you know 艾未未, you know he is a writer, an artist, a critic, etc. in China. The usage of 经验 as a verb is, well, a relative written form.

@ Steve

Have you ever thought about using the huge amount of data available at LingQ for doing genuine research into language learning?


as I said before your Chinese is really good! My point is always the same: I have a hard time believing that one can build vocabulary as fast as you say you can. Furthermore the word count you typically report here for many of your other languages (which I assume to be comparable in your Chinese since it is one of your stronger languages) would produce different spoken output, I think.