LingQ tells me that I ‘know’ just over 125,000 words; this is in large part because LingQ has long been my preferred medium for reading. I’m rigorous about what I regard as ‘knowing’ a word. Vaguely recognising it is not good enough. So (subject to the way LingQ counts Russian words), I think it’s a fair measure of my actual vocabulary.
My history with Russian is that after brief false starts in early life, I put my head down on 1 Jan 2011 and committed to studying every day, including Christmas, New Year, and my birthday. At the same time, I did have an intensive job, so the amount of study I could do was limited (probably nothing over an hour most days), until July 2015 when I retired early in order to ramp up my Russian and train to be a translator. After my retirement I studied for many hours a day, seven days a week. I was studying in several different ways at once: specifically to get our Diploma in Translation, and also to improve my speaking, listening, and reading. The fourth discipline - writing - was very much fourth out of four, and I’ve probably always used it almost exclusively on social media (my network on VK is quite big and reasonably active).
I think it’s important to be very clear as to your goals, as that will help you choose your activities. I’ve always been clear that in addition to wanting to read and translate, I wanted Russian to become my second spoken language, so I’ve been practising speaking from as early as I felt brave enough to do so. I sought out Russian conversation partners as soon as I dared, and to this day I skype two of them each week. I also have a network of personal friends inside Russia whom I meet when I go there; for several years I spoke with one of them every day, and we still write most days and speak when we can. It takes practice to say even simple words and word combinations. They sound great in your head and then come out wrong. These days, I get a kick out of coping in a Russian shop, and that’s mainly because the conversations are quite similar, and they start just to flow after a while. But for ages, going into Russian shops was completely hit and miss - one day easy, the next not understanding a word, the next being told I sounded like a native, and then the fourth time back to the assistant muttering ‘bleeding foreigner.’ Progress is not linear, and accepting that and trying not to worry about it is important.
I also regard listening practice as part of speaking, so I listen to Echo of Moscow every day, or perhaps a podcast on Meduza. A few years ago, when I started listening to the radio, I became dispirited because it was just a stream of gobbledegook. So the way I properly kickstarted the idea was to study the transcripts of programmes from the Echo of Moscow site, and listen to each programme more than once, unless it was just too boring. If I could bear it, I listened to the programme while reading the transcript and then listened again without the transcript. Repetition is incredibly important in both listening and speaking, but I understand that it’s better to find interesting repetition than boring repetition! My comprehension of the radio improved very slowly, but quite steadily. It took a few years to get where I am now, which is listening to political chat programmes or podcasts and getting well over 90% of it first time. I still repeat programmes, but these days only if I’m genuinely very interested. I go out for walks with headphones on, listening, and I always listen while I’m doing household chores. There have been time when I’ve spun out a job until the end of a programme because it was so interesting I just wanted to keep listening, so the house got a tad cleaner as a result …
The radio is much easier to me than TV serials or films. I like serials and films, but I miss a lot of verbal detail.
Pre lockdowns I went to Russia up to six times a year and can engage with my friends on most things. They’ll tell me that I speak well, but I’ll tell you I don’t, because my spoken Russian feels to me like it’s at about 50% the strength of my English. But it’s enough to get by. What I say now is that I can get myself out of any scrape I get myself into. Linguistic scrape I mean. In other words, I’m getting better at talking round/rephrasing stuff I’m struggling with, and I no longer go into a gibbering panic when I don’t understand what’s being said to me. That too took time, and involved blundering through a lot of embarrassments and tongue-tied moments. I’m not sure I see an alternative to blundering about at least to start with. I don’t believe you can just turn up and speak well just because you’ve read a lot.
On using a dictionary while reading, I now work as a literary translator, so I use a whole suite of dictionaries the whole time, including giant English dictionaries and monolingual Russian dictionaries. That’s probably not a fair test! If I’m reading just for myself, then I might nonetheless study the book like a text and look words up, but every now and then I’ll just read a book without a dictionary because sometimes I just can’t bear all that being slowed down and treating every single act of reading like a school exercise. When I read quickly without reference to anything, I’m sure I miss a lot of detail but I do get the flow.
I wouldn’t worry about how long it’s taking you - though I would set goals if I were you, and work out how you want to get to them. It’s taken me years longer to get where I am with my speaking than I wanted it to, and I’m still nowhere near where I want to be. But that’s good, I think - it’s good to push yourself and demand more, as long as you also take time along the way to celebrate just how much progress you have in fact made.
Probably too long. I do wish you well. Keep believing, have bucket loads of fun, be brave, and be incredibly stubborn - when it goes wrong, just do it again.
Oh - I meant to add - don’t worry about getting a certain % of blue words in every new text. A lot of it is down to the fact that LingQ views every instance of хороший as a separate word. 6 cases, three genders, two numbers - so many different words! But you know them all, because you can decline adjectives. (This might make you think that LingQ is over-counting how many words you know, but look at it this way: you know the patterns, and so you can decline every adjective in Russian and conjugate lorry loads of verbs. You see a ‘new’ word in LingQ in blue, but you know it already, because it’s the dative plural of a known adjective, being met in LingQ for the first time. Conversely, there are thousands of forms that you know but just happen not to meet on LingQ.) If I load a novel into LingQ, there will be 10%, 12%, sometimes even more blue words, occasionally less than 10%: but these days I don’t need to make LingQs for most of them - because they’re not ‘new’. They’re just forms that haven’t been seen by LingQ.