LINGUIST List 8.920

Mon Jun 23 1997

Review: Brown: Russian Learners's Dictionary

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Message 1: Review of _Russian Learners' Dictionary_

Date: Sun, 22 Jun 1997 18:25:23 -0500 (UTC -05:00)
From: wjgriff <wjgriffKUHUB.CC.UKANS.EDU>
Subject: Review of _Russian Learners' Dictionary_


Brown, Nicholas J. (1996) _Russian Learners' Dictionary: 10,000 words
	 in frequency order_. London and New York: Routledge. pp. 429.

Reviewed by William J. Griffiths <wjgriffkuhub.cc.ukans.edu>

It should be abundantly clear from its title that this Russian dictionary, 
organized according to word frequency, is intended to serve a well-defined 
pedagogical purpose--i.e., the acquisition of vocabulary by an 
English-speaking university student of the Russian language. Brown asserts
that, by and large, a student of Russian can acquire an understanding of the 
essentials of Russian grammar within a year; the impediment to increasing
proficiency then becomes the acquisition of vocabulary. But which words 
should the Russian language student learn? This dictionary proposes to provide
guidance in this endeavor for both the language learner and the language
instructor.

SYNOPSIS

The dictionary is divided into three major sections: "Introduction" (1-14), 
"10,000 words in frequency order" (15-306), and "Index" (307-429). The 
introduction consists of two parts: the first part is devoted to a discussion 
of the compilation of the dictionary and the methodological issues associated 
with its compilation; the second part contains a brief sketch of the type of
grammatical information included in the dictionary. We will return to a 
discussion of methodology below.

The section entitled "10,1000 words in frequency order" is the body of the 
dictionary. Russian words are listed according to relative frequency; no 
numerical statistics are given (only a brief general outline is given in the 
introduction). The English gloss(es) of each Russian word is given along with 
any irregular forms in the paradigm of that word. The aspectual partners are
included in verb entries--i.e., Russian verbs have imperfective and perfective 
forms. The first 600 entries also include a short phrase/sentence in Russian 
to illustrate usage along with a corresponding English gloss.

The index contains an alphabetical listing of the 10,000 words in the 
dictionary along with their English glosses. The words are cross-referenced 
with their corresponding frequency number. 

REVIEW

Brown's dictionary is an important innovation because there have not been 
frequency lists of this magnitude previously compiled for the Russian 
vocabulary. Brown states (4) that the arguments against a frequency list 
beyond the core vocabulary (approximately 2,000 words) revolve around the fact 
that the frequency of items becomes dependent upon a series of factors: e.g., 
the topic of the text, the relative weight accorded to spoken speech, the 
inclusion/exclusion of scientific/technical texts, etc. These factors certainly
complicate the compilation of a frequency list of 10,000 words. Brown starts 
with the assumption that such a frequency list would be "possible and 
pedagogically useful". Therefore, methodological adjustments are in order.

The methodology employed by Brown is introduced to service his pedagogical 
purposes. The two primary sources upon which this dictionary is based are L.N.
Zasorina (1977) and Lennart Loenngren (1993). The corpus of each of these 
frequency counts consists of a million words, but each count exhibits certain 
biases. Zasorina's count is based on absolute frequency and has a definite 
Soviet bias; although Loenngren's count is statistically more rigorous, 
employing modified frequency, it is explicitly based on the written language. 
Although the methodologies used by these two frequency counts are different, 
they share certain oddities. For example, the following basic vocabulary items
fail to make the top ten thousand in Zasorina and occur less than ten times per
million in Loenngren (6):

 vtornik = 'Tuesday'
 chetverg = 'Thursday'
 smetana = 'sour cream'

The absence of these items in a frequency list of 10,000 words would strike an 
experienced language instructor as odd. The first two items constitute two 
members of the extremely restricted semantic group of the days of the week, 
the remaining members of which all appeared on the respective frequency lists; 
the third item is a mainstay of the Russian diet. Brown openly acknowledges 
that he has supplemented these statistically-oriented frequency lists with 
"non-statistical intuition". This intuition is however based upon numerous 
years of experience as a Russian language teacher and has been subjected to 
further verification in a language-learning environment. It would be possible 
to quibble over the inclusion and/or exclusion of specific lexical items, but 
total agreement on a number like 10,000 is quixotic. I find this use of
intuition to supplement statistical frequency lists quite acceptable, and even 
indispensable, for the stated pedagogical goals.

This dictionary undoubtedly achieves it stated aim of telling the language 
learner which Russian words they should learn and in which order; however, this
raises a further issue: which is the most efficient way for language learners 
to acquire a larger vocabulary? That is to say, do language students increase 
their vocabulary in Russian (or in any foreign language) by simply memorizing 
lists of words, however they might be arranged? Perhaps a small segment does, 
but the majority do not. For language learners of Russian, this dictionary 
can function as a useful yardstick by which they can gauge their development 
and "fill in" perceived isolated lexical gaps. But I consider this dictionary 
to be of greater significance to the language instructor. It can be a valuable
resource for the language instructor faced with the daunting task of 
facilitating vocabulary acquisition. Instead of merely mouthing the 
oft-repeated mantra "Read more in Russian", Brown's dictionary can aid in 
judging the relative difficulty of authentic Russian texts, in deciding which 
words in a text to gloss, in developing more specific vocabulary goals within
the Russian language curriculum, etc. Brown has provided a useful raw 
material for teaching Russian to English-speaking student; the onus falls 
upon the language instructor to refine this material in such a way as to be 
most beneficial for the language learner.

I do have one small criticism concerning the presentation of the frequency 
list. From item 2000 onwards, there are large blocks of words in alphabetical 
order. The words appearing within these blocks occur at equal frequency. 
These blocks are neither listed in the introduction nor graphically marked in 
the actual frequency list. These blocks should be quickly identifiable in 
order to increase the ease of use of the dictionary.

REFERENCES

Loenngren, Lennart, ed. (1993) _Chastotnyi slovar' sovremennogo russkogo
 iazyka_. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Studia Slavica 
 Uppsaliensia 32.

Zasorina, L.N. (1977) _Chastotnyi slovar' russkogo iazyka_. Moskva: Russkii
 iazyk.


- ----------------------------------------------------------------

Dr. William J. Griffiths. Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures. University of Kansas.

My primary research interest include Russian syntax, aspectology--Russian, 
comparative Slavic, and typological--, and L2 acquisition from a cognitive/
functional theoretical perspective.
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