Who’d have thought it? The Socialist ideal of education for all is alive and well and amongst us today, even though few in the West would even consider the notion. Those in the right-wing USA media epitomise a particular attitude towards such realities, descending into paroxysms of quaking hysteria at the very mention of “social” anything. I doubt that would deter their ranks from using those amazing free, social resources at their disposal.. A psychological ‘disconnect’ is a fabulous aide when engaging a double standard. As for the rest of us? Well, we don’t really care about such things do we? I don’t, as long as the resources are good. And they are, really good!
So, here is the first of two wonderful tools available on the internet, with a particular slant on their use for learning Russian. No, this is not an arm’s-length, web search recommendation. I have these resources on-tap, I use them a lot to help me learn Russian (ongoing) and yes, I recommend them too, for whatever that’s worth to you!
Duolingo is a remarkable online tool and mobile app, garnering accolades since its inception in 2011. Apple awarded it “iPhone App of the Year”, Google: “Best of the Best for Android” and TechCrunch: “Best Education Startup”. Significantly, it has gained over 120 million users to date and still remains free (and is ad-free too). It sounds too good to be true, but isn’t!
It has a beautifully laid out, uncluttered interface that invites investigation and requires almost no instruction to use. Everything is largely self explanatory and geared to encourage, with achievement levels, groups of tasks to complete, virtual rewards, targets to set and progress/improvement illuminated as you work through (and re-work) the content. There are also tips, immediate mouse-over help and supplementary information on hand for more detail as required. You can even link-up with a fellow Duolinguist (?) for some friendly competition/encouragement along the way and receive matter-of-fact reminders/admonishments if you stray from class.
The format is essentially call-and-response in nature. Duolingo typically presents a phrase in Russian or English, or alternatively a multiple choice query in the form of images and/or words. Your task will then be to provide (as appropriate) an English translation, a Russian translation or to select one or more images/words as the answer. It is also pretty helpful along the way, often with the option of mouse-over translations that reveal the answers directly!
That may seem an odd choice but frankly, whatever works, works! If you need a blatant nudge to help make the knowledge stick then so be it. It’s down to you. Any “cheating” is only cheating yourself – the reward is slower learning and less effective communication in real situations. Your choice!
One of the aspects that is really great about the system is that it provides continual verbal feedback, a fantastic help with translation and pronunciation, immediately placing it streets ahead of read-only resources. It is also smart enough to let you ‘pass’ with occasional silly mistakes: say for instance a small typo in a word, but at the same time rejects critical blunders.
There’s no escape from your mistakes though as Duolingo re-introduces your failed questions further down the line until you get them right. On you go, turning the achievement icons on the progress chart to gold as you work your way through sections such as “Basics”, “Alphabet”, “Numbers”, “Cases” and much more.
So how is it with Russian? Well, it’s very good. The audio pronunciation is very useful and the gradual learning is curve carefully thought out. One of the difficulties with learning Russian as a native English speaker is that the Russian word order is interchangeable, with the words themselves modified to provide tense, context, ownership and gender. There’s verb conjugation to contend with, 3 genders (count ‘em) plus the dreaded case system: It’s brutal.
For the most part Duolingo handles all of this seamlessly. The form of the required answer is indicated by the form of the question. Simple enough, though you may come unstuck when trying to translate Russian to English in its most literal sense.
The software is usually looking not only for the equivalent English words, but also the way that we would phrase the question ourselves, in our word order. It pays to remember that you are not only translating words, but a whole way of thinking too. It works in two ways: there are still accepted conventions in Russian to say “Do you have” or “I have” for instance. Duolingo is looking for these in your answers too.
Reading this, you may assume that you need some prior knowledge of Russian to start using Duolingo, and you would have a point. There is no letter-by-letter alphabet training for instance and no basic vowel/consonant practice (outside of the main exercises), or pre-exercise instruction on how the language works. So as an absolute first-day novice, you may get the feeling that you are just being dropped-in. This can also be a boon though: get a few ultra-simple questions correct, even if you have to guess or grasp a word clue, and it already feels like progress.
Crucially, you will need access to Russian characters via a Windows language pack or other (web?) means. As already mentioned, you will be typing in Russian, a lot. Duolingo is not aimed towards those who are just looking for a few travelers phrases. So it’s methodical, idiosyncratic style is not a solution for everyone, as evidenced by Kirsten’s on her Fluent blog:
“I don’t love Duolingo. In fact, I don’t get it. I want to enjoy using this little app. I want to be part of the club of people who sit in a doctor’s waiting room levelling up their vocab, but somehow I just don’t get it”.
As part of your self-assembled Russian learning package (which you will accrue by accident or design if you are serious, trust me) I’d say that Duolingo is fabulous, allowing you to practice and reinforce what you know whilst crucially advancing your knowledge too. Native English speakers are the most widely catered for, as are those who wish to learn English, though other language combinations are available.
More education for the masses next week!
[Photo by selswsk20]