Learn a language Tim Ferriss’ way: The Deconstruction Dozen method for grappling with Russian grammar

Tim Ferriss’ Deconstruction Dozen method for grappling with Russian grammar

Tim Ferriss , author of many bestselling books, developed a cheat sheet for breaking down the basic framework of a language — something which can take novices months if not years, to wrap their head around. Unchanging, the twelve sentences assist learners to unlock the unique features of a language’s grammar, including sentence structure.

This does not make it a replacement for traditional grammar study you still need to put in some work to benefit from his approach. However, if you’re able to follow the technique outlined below, it is a fantastic way acquire a solid foundation in Russian and the great thing about it is that it is all contained on one page! Having the most significant features of the grammar of a language on one page simplifies the process of learning a language and at your own pace, you can peruse the sentences and translate them through a process known as ‘glossing’. That is, providing a literal translation of each word in the target language (in our case Russian) side-by-side.

For example:





Literal translation (‘gloss’)




English meaning

The pen is red.

As you can see in the example above, the literal translation is both ungrammatical and unnatural for a native speaker of English. However, the direct translation of each word and the preferred order of words in Russian, is the type of information you can glean from the language when you parse the text in order to understand the grammatical function of each word in a sentence. Step-by-step, you’ll uncover the basic foundations of Russian’s grammatical structure as each sentence brings with it new complexities to explore.

One of the most challenging parts about getting started with Tim Ferriss’ twelve sentences, is finding accurate translations, because as good as the best online translators have become in recent years, they are still far from perfect and accurate human translations are what you need before undertaking such a task.

In addition, for inexperienced language-learners, it can be difficult to think in the way that Tim Ferriss – a man who wrote a 128-page senior thesis on the acquisition of Japanese vocabulary for his undergraduate degree and speaks fluent Japanese and Spanish amongst other languages such as Chinese and German to lesser degrees – thinks when going through the gruelling process of acquiring a new language.

It isn’t enough to simply memorise the sentences. Throughout the process of parsing the translations, you need to keep a look out for the patterns which will emerge within the sentences. With each word, ask yourself the following questions:

1) What does this word mean?

2) Which word does it correspond to in the English translation?

( Note that the precise meaning may differ from the word used to convey this meaning. For example, in Russian, ‘I am 18 years old’ translates as ‘ Мне 18 лет’. This is a statement about one’s age and is literally translated as ‘To me, 18 years.’ Therefore, although the literal meaning of the word Мне is to me, in the English version, it would correspond to ‘I am’.)

3) What part of speech does the word represent?

(E.g. a noun, verb, adjective, etc.)

4) What is the grammatical function of the part of speech?

(For example, a preposition can show a relationship between two nouns.)

5) Is the word singular , or plural in terms of its grammatical number ?

6) Why does the word occupy that particular position in the sentence?

(For example, the purpose of the word might be to describe another word, thereby making it an adjective and you may uncover that Russian adjectives appear in a specific position relative to the noun in a sentence).

7) In what ways does the presentation of the word change in accordance with its role in a sentence?

(Look out for any changes in spelling.)

8) How would you apply the rule(s) learnt to another sentence of a similar construction?

(That is, does anything about the order of the sentence stand out to you, which would help you to construct a sentence of a similar nature, but with different words?)

There is no harm in giving his method a try and seeing if it provides the structure and insights you need in order to get to grips with the grammatical structure of Russian. For that reason, I have provided a side-by-side translation of Tim Ferris’ twelve sentences. I have not glossed the text for you, matching it to the precise word it corresponds to, because I strongly believe that you need to do it for yourself. If you are handed everything on a plate, you won’t give your brain the chance to establish connections between your prior knowledge and newly-encountered information, which plays a major role in you reaching new understandings independently.

Note that I have replaced the word apple in the original 12 sentences constructed by Tim Ferriss, with the word pen, because in Russian (which makes use of gendered nouns ), this noun is neuter and unlike masculine and feminine gendered nouns, apple does not change form as nouns typically do depending on their position in a sentence, therefore certain patterns that you should know about in order to grasp what happens to the majority or nouns in Russian, would escape you. In addition, I replaced the verb to eat with the verb to use given the fact that the main noun was updated. Finally, I updated the English translation Ferriss provided, in order to ensure that it sounds as natural as possible (in line with what a native speaker of English would actually say).

1. The pen is red.

2. It is John’s pen.

3. I am giving John the pen.

4. We are giving John the pen.

5. He is giving it to John.

6. She is giving it to him.

7. Is the pen red?

8. The pens are red.

9. I must give it to him.

10. I want to give it to her.

11. I will know tomorrow.

12. I can’t use the pen.

1. Это красная ручка.

2. Это ручка Джона.

3. Я даю ручку Джону.

4. Мы даём Джону ручку.

5. Он даёт её Джону.

6. Она даёт её ему.

7. Это красная ручка?

8. Эти ручки красные?

9. Я должен дать ему её.

10. Я хочу дать её ей.

11. Я узнаю завтра. / Завтра узнаю.

12. Я не могу пользоваться ручкой.

By bearing the eight questions outlined above in mind as you explore the deconstruction dozen, you’ll get to the root of Russian grammar and discover a wealth of information which will hopefully provoke greater curiosity about the language. Remember – curiosity didn’t kill the cat; it made it smarter.


The website 12 Sentences was inspired by Tim Ferriss’ method as outlined above. Ferriss’ original twelve sentences can be found here, with the sentences recorded by a native speaker and teacher of the Russian language.

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