In this final part of the series, we’ll continue looking at more of the many tools and methods available to assist your Russian language practice. There’s certainly a plethora out there, although they usually follow a few similar themes and styles. The good news is that we are spoilt for choice and can usually find a particular variation on a theme that suits us individually. You may have a preferred phrasebook for instance. I’m partial to Lonely Planet material, but you need to scan a few bookstores, libraries and reviews to find something that makes sense in your head. So we continue.
Mobile apps (and other software)
Yes, I’m cheating a little. The phone/tablet is just the platform, of course. As with printed books, the style, content, and quality vary considerably! What many of the apps have in common though is (often) a flexible, immediate style that facilitates convenient sessions practically anywhere, if a few minutes (or longer) are available. Apps are often well supported by their creators who supply new content for download so that their program never gets old. Some apps/software are free, others cost either negligible or perfectly acceptable amounts of cash – way lower than a “good” audio course on CD/other for instance. Other courses operate on a subscription basis,-which I won’t entertain. Why? Well essentially because I refuse to pay for a product forever, past it’s market value and onwards into infinity. There’s more, but that’s beyond the remit, here.
Anyway, if a resource is available in book form then an equivalent is also likely available as a mobile app. So that’s: phrasebooks, dictionaries and reading practice covered. Additionally, the options for interactivity are vast and the streaming or downloadable media content (not least the spoken pronunciation) is a boon.
I’ve spent many hours working through Russian on Duolingo, either on the web/PC or via my mobile app. Personal preference is a massive factor (as I’ve said all along) but could this app be considered exemplary within the genre? Quite possibly.
Both the web and mobile versions are superbly structured and richly featured with course progress mapped (yes a course, proper) and audio pronunciation throughout. However, the program does assume an introductory level of Russian already, which will still be quite a step for complete novices. I suggest working on your Russian alphabet and some basic word structure first, or at least alongside. Frankly, though you’ll benefit from such an approach, whatever app you chose. Yes, in case you were wondering; there are also apps to help you learn the Russian alphabet: plenty of them, none of which I have used.
Duolingo is also free, which is especially remarkable considering its quality, although a subscription is available to remove ads, support the creators and to enable offline practice.
Mondly is also worth a look – in my opinion, with free introductory and paid, premium versions available. The daily, practice-calendar is a definite highlight, encouraging participation, with a bonus lesson at each week’s completion. These “drop-in” mini-sessions are great for a few minutes practice each, with the greater part of the app covering a more course-like structure as you progress via route-points, winding across a map of Russia. “What’s not to like?”, as someone once said. The premium version is currently available for roughly 20 GBP, so essentially: the price of a round of drinks.
Other apps follow similar themes, or focus on a specific aspect of the language. Some provide useful translation services with optional photographic or spoken input, achieved via a connection to Google Translate (also available as an app), or by relying on their own databases. These may even be downloadable, removing the necessity for a live WiFi/data connection. ‘Essential for when your signal fails, or if you don’t use a Russian mobile phone provider. The aforementioned Google Translate is a good place to start and is often recommended. iTranslate Voice also gets a lot of approval. There are many others.
If you don’t already know, automated translation has to be approached with kid gloves and in the most unambiguous “John and Jane” style possible. This is especially true if it is to work across languages so disparate as English and Russian. Automated translator earpieces promise instant results in natural conversation, but with Russian I’m both sceptical (due to the word order), and happy to be convinced of their efficacy should the proof be there.
Incidentally, I promised a pleasant surprise when it comes to learning Russian as a native English speaker. The time is now. You’ll find a surprising amount of Russian words that are simply modified versions of their English equivalents. “Crisis” is merely “krizis”, for example. “Television” is “televizor”, “expedition” is “expeditsia”, “normal” is pretty close to “normalny”, and so on. It’s certainly reassuring to stumble upon a familiar face whilst navigating the purgatory that is the Russian “case” system.
A special case
Whilst there is often a crossover/blurring between mobile and desktop software (hence: I’m not concentrating on PC’s/Mac’s here), I’ve really got to highlight Influent which sets out to expand your vocabulary by exploring an apartment full of clickable items within a 3D game environment. As far as I know it’s unique and available on all desktop/laptop platforms. I took an extensive look it, here.
A real-life language partner
Is there a better way to learn than by practicing with a native speaker? Probably not, which is why you may have heard that immersion in the culture whose language you wish to learn is the most effective method; you are surrounded by “them”. Such a predicament will force your hand of course, throwing up unexpected situations where you’ll have to come up with something, and by necessity: you do. You’ll also come across many people who have no interest in being your teacher, or having you in their way. I’ve been there. You’ll also meet folks who think that repeating a phrase that you don’t understand, over and over again, will somehow implant the meaning into your brain. A certain resilience is required.
Fortunately, global communication has never been easier or cheaper, effectively free via Skype or some other form of VOIP technology, When coupled with many language exchange sites such as My Language Exchange or Scrabbin, we have a great way to practice with people in the same mindset and without holding up a bus queue. On the surface, it’s just a case of connecting with a compatible language partner onsite, and then practicing each other’s languages in turn via Skype/other.
Getting the mix right can be a little tricky with both personality and ability to contend with. Two absolute beginners trying to speak each other’s languages are going to find progress pretty difficult, whereas ‘gifted’ on one side and ‘near-novice’ on the other may work, with tolerance and patience. This kind of practice is arguably best undertaken when you are at least some way into “beginner” territory, and you actually have something (even at a basic level) to try out. You’ll have grasped some basic concepts inherent to your target language and things will have started making sense.
This is essentially a subset of the above, where your “partner” is your teacher and will tolerate you as an absolute beginner, for a fee. I’ve also tried this method but it didn’t work for me. The cost was prohibitive, though at £10 per hour: not unreasonable for a skilled service. The teacher, -although great at her craft, and an excellent host to boot- gave me a flood of information that I just couldn’t soak up. Most of her gems simply glanced off and were lost, whilst I still struggled with basic concepts. But don’t let that put you off. You can also get professional language tuition from enterprising individuals via Skype and with some form of online payment.
Here endeth the lesson, at least for now.
I’ll leave you with some encouraging words from Sandy Millin who’s excellent blog entries on the subject offer a myriad of practical tips:
“Build up a bank of successful experience, whether it’s reading, writing, listening, speaking, or remembering words and grammar. Focus on all of the things you’ve been able to do (not what you haven’t), and notice how much more you can do the next time round”.