(Russian) Known words to be able to read without a dictionary

I’ve been mostly focusing on Russian here with LingQ and even after over 1.2M words read and almost 51k known words, there still seems like there is no end in sight. Biographies and fiction books can still leave me with 5% (100) of yellow words after finishing a 2k word lesson. It would be nice to get this down to 1% eventually.

I’m starting to wonder if 100k known words is necessary to read adult fiction books without the use of a dictionary. Can some of the very advanced Russian learners comment on their experience?

PS, can you also comment on the amount of time it has taken you? I’d estimate my total time learning Russian on LingQ to be around 1200-1500 hours and I’d guess that’s roughly 60-65% of the time needed to double my words read and known word counts to 3M read and 90-100k known.


It depends a lot on what kind of books you read. To understand most vocabulary of very demanding literature you need a lot of vocabulary, probably over 90K+ known “Lingq” words, maybe 100K.
I’m not even sure how many words I know at this moment because I stopped using Lingq for Russian once I felt I didn’t need it any more
([Edit] past 72K which is OK for communication even for some professional roles, e.g. I’m helping teach online courses in Russian now)
and went on to learn new languages (currently mostly Indonesian + Japanese) but improving my Russian is still my highest priority.
Those 70K+ know words allow you to understand “average” media content, in the sense of following the message, not necessarily getting every single word and also let you get the the gist of not too complicated written material (not highly artistic literature, e.g.) without a dictionary.
Your current level of 50K+ know words is a very decent one and it would allow you to interact with native speakers pretty nicely if not always in the most fluent manner. I spent a few weeks in Russian when I was about at that level and that was my experience. I visited again after the 70K mark and I noticed a big improvement.
My own rule of thumb (admittedly very tentative) is based on Professor Argüelles’ proposal of how many words you usually need plus a very rough estimate that you need over 4 times as many Lingq words to get to a given amount of “family words” for a Slavic language. It would go like this:

  • At 5K word families/lexemes (20k-25k Lingq words) you can understand simple conversations (about B1-ish level).
  • At 10k word families (40k-50k Lingq words) you can understand more natural conversations. That’s your current level.
  • At 20k word families you can understand “high literature”, that’s 90k-100k Lingq words as I mentioned before.
    That’s based on Pro.f Argüelles’ estimates of the amount of family words you need. As I said before, my experience in Russian suggests that there is an intermediate level of 70k-75k Lingq words that allow you to understand media without much trouble, take part in professional/educational activities and read not very demanding literature.
    How long does it take? That’s the million-dollar question. It varies immensely depending on your schedule, previous knowledge and so on.
    I can give you my own “official” Lingq stats in case you find them useful but please take them with a healthy dose of salt. I went through phases of intense study on Lingq, periods in which Lingq was not my main study platform, e.g. when I visited Russia or Ukraine or at the end of my study when I got most of my Russian exposure through video and conversation. There were also times when I didn’t have time to study a lot. For those reasons on many occasion, my Lingq stats didn’t reflect my level.
    So, “officially” it took me about 5 years to get to 70k+ known Lingq words. At that time I had read about 1.5M words on Lingq.

Желаю успехов и надеюсь, что эта информация вам поможет.

Still using a dictionary with novels at 71k. (I don’t feel like I’m in that “very advanced” category you address.) I’m currently reading, off and on, the Russian translation of A Gentleman in Moscow by Armor Towles on LingQ. With native novels as well as with this translation there will be pages that are all or mostly white, then there will be a spate of blue. Dialog is generally easy. It’s when the author gets all literary in describing scenes and situations that the blue appears. The more you learn, the more you’ll recognize new words from roots and affixes, as I’m sure you’re experiencing at your level.

I honestly have no idea of how much time I’ve invested in reading and listening. I’ve been active on LingQ, in fits and starts, for about 5 years. I have never had a study plan or a goal to reach x words or y hours of listening within a particular time frame.

The difference between reading and pure listening is that in reading you see, and can get hung up on, every single word, whereas with listening you may not even realize it when an unrecognized word flies by if you’re generally understanding the flow. In any case with successful listening you cannot get hung up on unrecognized words because the speaker isn’t waiting for you to check that dictionary. This, of course, must be why reading is so good for building vocabulary.

I find listening more enjoyable and less stressful than reading if I can generally understand the speaker. For what it’s worth, I can mostly comprehend and enjoy YT channels such as Руслан Усачев, Varlamov, Редакция, Космос Просто, and many others. Unfortunately there are still those people who refuse to make themselves understandable. Over time I actually have noticed some of them becoming more comprehensible, just not fast enough to suit my druthers. Much of that is a matter of listening comprehension, not vocabulary. The author/narrator of the Just Fun channel (which is great for its real, not auto, Russian subtitles) seems to like exercising his vocabulary and stretching mine. :slight_smile:


For reference this is the original forum thread where the above estimates were proposed:
This post elaborates on the idea:

Yes it was very helpful. Thank you very much. It’s good to know that 75k can get you to a pretty decent level. That’s not too far from where I’m at now. Maybe I can get there in another 1.5-2 years (if I don’t get too distracted by the other languages).

Where in Russia and Ukraine did you go? I was in Odessa and Kiev for about 6 weeks when I was very early on in my studies and didn’t even get much use out of the language since I didn’t really know anything at the time. I would like to visit Saint Petersburg when I can get to a conversational level.

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Thanks for the YouTube suggestions. I just subscribed to them.

That’s a good point about listening. You can be more relaxed and not have to stress about learning every word. Listening is something I’ve focused more on the last few months but still don’t do nearly enough of it. How has passive vs active listening affected your comprehension?

I’ve been to Saint Petersburg quite a few times and I’m very fond of it. From there I’ve visited Novgorod (Velikij) [amazing place], Moscow, Tver (by the Volga), the area around Pskov (roughly half way between SP and Moscow), in particular the lovely but not well known Stary Izborg:

I’ve also been several times in Karelia (it is convenient to go by electrichka from SP), in particular around the Ladoga lake, that I absolutely love. Last time (two summers ago, just pre-Covid) I went on a multi-day excursion on kayak with a group in which, of course, there was no other foreigner: best immersion ever!
As for Ukraine, I once visited Kiev.
At 50k known words you are at a good conversational level, as I explained above. I knew fewer words when I went on my SP-Moscow-Tver-Izborg tour and even fewer when I first visited SP and went for the first time to Karelia and Novgorod. I would advise you to go as soon as circumstances allow and do something similar to what I did: get immered by enrolling in an activity that you like and that is meant for native Russians.

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.


No, not too long. What you wrote is very interesting. Thanks for taking the time!

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Thank you for sharing your experience, Richard. It’s really fascinating. It’s very clear that your Russian is great and I love the fact that you just set clear goals and priorities and took your time. That’s clearly the road to mastery

Not sure what is meant by active vs. passive. If by passive you mean listening while not actively trying to understand, I haven’t really done that. Watching visually interesting videos while not understanding the words might border on that, though. I started by watching things that were visually interesting, catching a word here, a phrase there – young youtube bloggers with their challenges and pranks, e.g. It was a thrill to catch the odd word or phrase to put with what was on the screen. But the more I understood the more banal they seemed, and I’ve mostly moved on to other types of content.

Thank you for the detailed response. It’s always nice learning of a person’s reason and motivation to undertake a such time and energy consuming task as learning a language to a high degree. What made you want to become a translator? Do you mostly translate Russian to English or the other way?

As for my goals, they started off as just becoming a fluent reader of fiction novels (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, etc.) and also have great listening comprehension. Over the past 6 months or so I decided that I may as well speak the language fluently, but that’s not something that’s on my plate at the moment. If I can get to “decent” speaking level then I would like to visit Russia when travelling becomes a better idea. So there is a ton of work ahead of me, but it should continue to be enjoyable.

PS, it’s reassuring that there are other people out there who are also determined to put in thousands of hours of work just to learn a difficult language. I don’t talk to any of my friends about my language learning hobby because I don’t want to feel the need to explain why I do this. Luckily the people on LingQ understand.


Thank you for your very kind words. I’ve enjoyed and benefited from all your contributions over the years - your analyses and practical suggestions are all very impressive and your desire to support others likewise. Plus you write so well and naturally that I don’t understand why there’s a Spanish flag by your name - you’re clearly English …


You’ve reminded me of how tired I got in the early days when people said, ‘Yes but why?’ and ‘Why Russian?’ With the clear implication: ‘You’re weird’, and/or, ‘There is no good reason that I can see.’ The last time I sat in person with a group of translators, which was in a pub in London in March 2020, I suddenly burst out with, ‘It’s so good that none of us is ever going to ask any of the others “Why do you do this?”’ In the end, I descended to asking my friends and other inquisitors, ‘Do you really have no passions at all?’ But I did finally come to be strangely grateful for all the doubtful questioning, because I was able to formulate something of an answer: that when it comes to speaking Russian, I have the same feeling I experienced when I read children’s stories about opening a door and being in another world. Russia and Russian is my other world; another place, another time, and a me who is at the one and the same time also ‘other’ and yet still me, so I am there to feel the wonder and the pleasure.

On why a translator, I think to begin with there was an external and an internal reason. I wanted to use my Russian in some way, to communicate, and, if possible, to do good, for example, to help Russian authors realise their goals and reach the wider audience their work deserves. The internal reason was to give myself a goal, so that I would have the discipline and fight to improve. If I could get the diploma and start working professionally, it would help me measure objectively what I was achieving.

Now I’ve made some progress, those early impetuses still matter, of course, but the whole thing has developed its own life and momentum, and I’m enjoying all aspects of translation, especially getting to know Russian authors and other clients, networking with other translators, finding new texts, etc. Being offered a very big project also helped me through many of 2020’s long lockdown months.


Я уверен, что вы интересуйетесь путешествиями. Поэтому я также вам рекоммендую канал “Хочу домой”

I see there’s a lot of replies all ready here, and I haven’t read them all. But I want to give my cents anyways. :slight_smile:
I’m currently at 37000 known words in Russian and ~800000 total words read. And I can already read High-end fantasy without a dictonary… or so it can feel sometimes. The thing is, it depends on what you mean with a dictionary and what you read. Currently I’m reading Assassins’ apprentice in Russian and it’s about 8 - 10% unknown words for me per lesson. I can read it on my kindle and get everything that is going on no problem. But on the other hand, it’s my favorite book of all time and I know it very well having read it in Danish and English. So it’s no issue to follow along. However there is still a ton of words that I don’t know, and I would have to be in the dictionary constantly if I wanted to look up all of them.
So my point is, you can probably already read a ton of books already without the use of a dictionary, as long as you know the plot.
I’m also currently reading “Дар Огня” which I’ve never read before. But so far I have no issue following along.
So again it really depends on the book, try some young adult books and see if they are possible to read.
After all, every author writes differently, some easy and some not. And you don’t have to know every word in a book to finish and enjoy it.

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According to Professor Arguelles the ideal number of unknown words to read without a dictionary and just deduct meaning from context would be around 2%.
I am learning Czech not Russian but I think the same word count would have to be achieved.
I currently have 94k known words but I still leave about 50-70 Lingqs in every lesson. The lessons are about 2000 word long but only around 1000 are individual words. So that is still 5-7% of unknown words even with 94k words under my belt.

I guess you will have to push up your goal quite a bit. 90-100k known words are not sufficient for a slavic language.

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I also rarely talk about my language studies. Bringing it up usually brings a puzzled look and something like “Why would you want to do that?”. But for me the language is its own goal. I happen to think that Russian is one of the most beautiful languages to listen to.

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What does it mean - “to read without a dictionary”?
When you actively know 50,000 words (the important thing is here ACTIVELY), you will be able to read any book without putting up the dictionary because every language has approximately 40,000 or 50,000 key words and all other words are derived from these key words.
But to manage it, you have to read every day something in your target language. In this case after several months you will get accustomed to guess the words without looking for them in a dictionary.
Don’t believe Pr. Arguelles, the number of the unknown words can be up to 25% - and you’ll be able to read without a dictionary if you have a trained brain by everyday reading!
Of course, when you’re a translator like Protorich, you must work with dictionaries and search from time to time the properly word for a good translation. But you needn’t do it if you’re reading just for improving your language skills and just to enjoy the novel itself.


Wow, based on all of your stats, you all have such great experience with the Russian language.
As a Russian beginner, these incredibly high numbers are both encouraging to me and a little daunting!

Never the less, just wanted to add, that this thread has been very interesting to me and gives me a bit of an indication as to what to expect throughout the course of my Russian journey.

I guess it really shows that we never truly stop learning. Even after 1000s of hours, there is still so much more out there to learn. In a way it’s nice that there is always something more to strive for.

Good luck to all of you with your ongoing Russian studies and thank you all for the fascinating insight.