Do you dream of being a spy?
Are you a James Bond fan who’s enamored of the romantic image of Cold War espionage?
Do you want to be at the center of all the action, intrigue and secrecy of international affairs?
Well, you can start by learning Russian!
I know what you’re thinking: “James Bond is just a movie, right?
While it’s true that spying has been heavily fictionalized in the second half of the 20th century, depicting the importance of Russian was one of the few things the spy thriller genre actually got right.
After the end of World War II, demand ballooned for speakers of Russian, the language of America’s would-be foe.
As a result, military organizations like the Pentagon and intelligence agencies like the CIA ramped up their resources to teach Russian to soldiers, spies and diplomats alike.
Today, those in defense continue to develop some of the most advanced training tools for Russian, many of which were designed by the Pentagon’s renowned Defense Language Institute.
With the financial backing of the government, the DLI has managed to develop technologically advanced resources that engage audio, visual and spatial learning styles, and the best is that these tools are available for Russian learners online, along with many others.
This means that you can maximize your learning by accessing a ton of great educational and authentic learning content, all for free or at affordable prices.
In this post, we’re going to look at how to strategically learn Russian using top tools created by the DLI, while taking ultimate advantage of the Internet by combining these tools with the best of other online Russian learning resources out there, all of them shaken, not stirred, and openly (de)classified.
The 5 Most Powerful Traits of Russian Learning Tools
Each learner has their own favorite set of tools to learn a language and, in turn, each set of tools has a series of elements that make them stand out from the rest.
By combining tools and their most powerful traits, you’ll be creating an arsenal (pun totally intended) of Russian learning resources that’ll make you unstoppable.
So, what are those traits, and how can you use them to your advantage?
1. Tools can be comprehensive.
The king of tools is one that includes everything a learner of Russian may need.
It’s not difficult to find a very good tool specializing in one or two language skills, but hitting that comprehensive jackpot can be a bit of a headache.
However, if you know a comprehensive tool is supposed to teach you the four major language skills (speaking, listening, reading and writing) as well as grammar and vocabulary, the list of candidates gets much smaller.
Additionally, a great comprehensive tool should:
- Be engaging and interactive.
- Give the student freedom to create their own learning path while having their back.
- Offer both theory and practice.
- Be created by a professional team that knows how languages should be learned and taught.
- Get updated often.
- Offer something no one else is offering.
A real comprehensive tool to learn Russian seems almost impossible to find, but keep on reading and you’ll see nothing is impossible.
2. Tools can be rule-oriented.
If you’re a methodical student, you probably love tools that give you specific rules you can abide by.
The most obvious place to find rules to learn Russian is a Russian textbook, whether it be a grammar book, a workbook or a Russian novel.
As you’ll see later in this post, rule-oriented tools allow the student of Russian to follow a specific course of action and path, making this kind of resource especially useful for people who are learning on their own.
Grammar books go step by step and build upon the material that the student has already covered to teach them new vocabulary and grammar topics.
This, together with the practice one can get from an accompanying Russian workbook, creates the perfect mixture of guidance and slow pace many beginners want.
3. Tools can be audio-oriented.
Listening comprehension is crucial when it comes to languages like Russian.
There are many learners who don’t feel like using books or don’t have enough free time throughout the day to just sit and study the language.
Thanks to all the audio material that’s available for Russian students, places such as the bus or the lunch cafeteria can become listening classrooms.
The biggest advantage of using audio-oriented tools is that the learner is absorbing the language in a natural way, much like a toddler would do.
Additionally, if they use the appropriate resources (a.k.a. native content like the one available on FluentU Russian), they’ll also be learning proper pronunciation, intonation and rhythm.
4. Tools can be portable and easily accessible.
We live in the era of the internet, and the word “portable” has become a synonym for “better” in many cases.
This is especially true for language learning tools.
Think of apps for learning Russian, for example. Anyone with a smartphone can download one of these little tools and learn Russian on the go without breaking a sweat.
The same can be said of Russian e-books. Many students love to use reading as their main way of learning, but just as many of them don’t have enough time to sit quietly and read a book.
Apps and e-books have made learning a language accessible for people who don’t have a computer or have to travel/commute because of work or personal reasons.
If it weren’t for this type of tool, many learners of Russian would have to stick to traditional methods that wouldn’t let them enjoy the process of learning the language and would force them to quit sooner than later.
Note that audio tools can also be considered portable and easily accessible, but they lack the active and engaging component apps and e-books intrinsically have.
5. Tools can be watchable.
Watchable tools or, in other words, Russian movies, series, TV shows and other types of video material, are in high demand.
This shouldn’t be a surprise, especially if we bear in mind that native media is one of the best methods to learn a language.
Thanks to streaming platforms such as Netflix and HBO, resources such as Russian movies and series are just a couple of clicks away.
Because of the nature of this type of tool, they’re more appropriate for intermediate and advanced learners, but there are also resources beginners can use.
Short videos, like the ones included in FluentU’s Russian YouTube channel, are a good choice for learners who don’t have a lot of time but still want to have their 15-20 minutes of daily Russian.
All in all, watchable resources are especially useful for students who want to put two different language skills into practice at the same time, since they’ll be engaging their ears (listening to native audio) and eyes (reading subtitles), apart from the fact that they’ll be learning new vocabulary and grammar structures along the way.
The 17 Best Russian Tools for Language Learners
The following 17 resources have been divided into five groups that correspond to the five traits described in the previous section.
Since I mentioned comprehensive tools do indeed exist, allow me to start with them.
Global Language Online Support System (GLOSS)
GLOSS isn’t a course. Rather, it’s a massive database of lessons and quizzes of all shapes and sizes, allowing for endless language growth.
GLOSS is available in dozens of languages, but its Russian offerings are especially robust—649 lessons!
Learners can navigate through lessons according to proficiency (1 through 5 according to the government’s language proficiency scale), by “Modality” (Listening or Reading), by “Competence” (Discourse, Lexical, Socio-cultural, Structural) or by topic (Environment, Economy, Society).
This allows learners to customize the focus of their studies depending on their professional or personal goals and nicely accommodates those in any field.
The topic section also contains defense-related vocabulary, in categories like Security, Military and Politics, which provide information and vocab practice relevant to international security contexts.
Both the text and audio of the lessons on GLOSS are downloadable in PDF and MP3 formats, to be easily stored and reviewed later. In addition, there are hundreds of original quizzes and other enjoyably challenging assessments to keep you on your toes while learning.
With its seemingly endless supply of Russian media pieces, GLOSS is the master key not only for those pursuing jobs in strategic diplomacy, media analysis or open-source intelligence, but also for those in any other field where knowing Russian will help.
To pair the authentic online video experience with the support of tools made especially for Russian learners, check out FluentU’s Russian program.
Plus, the videos are all naturally entertaining since they come from the shows, movies and channels that native Russian-speakers enjoy on the regular. You can watch documentary footage, television show clips, funny commericals and more all while learning the Russian language!
Take a quick look at what FluentU has on offer for yourself:
Didn't catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? FluentU makes native Russian videos approachable through interactive captions. Tap or click on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab. Easily review words and phrases with audio under Vocab.
Don’t stop there, though! Use FluentU’s quizzes to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you're on.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that information to give you a 100% personalized experience. You’ll get extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.
Start using FluentU on the website, or better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.
Russian Program for Fluency on Udemy
If you’re a pre-intermediate Russian learner and want to take the fast lane to fluency, this Udemy course is just perfect for you.
The Russian Program for Fluency is divided into 10 sections, each of which includes three lessons (a context lesson, a repetition lesson and a storytelling lesson) and 10 questions to check your knowledge.
The topics of the lessons range from navigating your way in an unfamiliar Russian city and going shopping to emergencies and medical aid, so this course will be helpful not only if you want to improve your conversational skills but also if you’re planning to travel to Russia.
The course includes over four hours of audio and 40 downloadable resources (MP3s and PDFs) you can take anywhere to learn on the go.
Headstart2 is an online module-based course found on the DLI’s website.
As the name implies, Headstart2 is meant to give soldiers and other government personnel a “head start”—a rapid language crash course for those soon deploying to areas where little English is spoken. This design makes it an ideal tool for learners who may be traveling to Russia soon and want to get a real-world, practical command of the language in as little time as possible.
The program consists of two units with interactive exercises: “Sound and Script” and “Military.”
Sound and Script covers the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, basic phrases and key pieces of culture—like a sing-along version of the song “Kalinka.” This provides you with an informative cultural backdrop for Russian that goes beyond learning mere nuts and bolts.
The Military part of the course includes stages that introduce you to the language as it could be used in action and in emergency situations, with vocabulary and phrases that are relevant to Russia’s army but can be useful to anyone. Each of these two parts consists of 10 “Modules,” each of which contains 2-5 “Tasks.” Illustrations and digital animation in the lessons will help you grasp Russian through visual context.
Although designed for the army and other branches, the phrases covered in the Military section are useful for travelers or learners who may need to deal with Russian authorities, navigate an emergency or who just are interested in scholarly fields like military history. The section may also be relevant to you if you’re interested in applying your Russian skills to being a journalist or writer working in areas like eastern Ukraine.
All together, Headstart2 adds up to 15-20 hours of immersion that combines an excellent foundation in basic Russian with an added practical edge.
Register for the self-directed program on DLI’s website. You receive an official Headstart2 certificate of completion for the course, a credential that could be your ticket to your first spy gig!
Language Survival Kits (LSKs)
The term “survival kit” is thrown around a lot in language learning. But in this case, the term is quite literal!
The DLI LSKs contain the most basic and useful Russian phrases. With slow audio and Latin forms of the phrases provided, the kits are very accessible to even absolute beginners unfamiliar with the Russian script.
LSKs contain a list of topics wide enough to fit any learner’s interests, not to mention their level of Russian. For example, the “Civil Affairs” link contains everything from “What is your name?” to “No cell phone use.”
This depth of content is initially hidden when clicking on the Russian LSK tab, as only 10 options for topics are shown. Click on any of those, however, and 18 specific pages for each will appear. As with the rest of DLI, choice is the name of the game. There are even specific sections for “Weapons” and “Navy” for those looking to experiment with more technical vocabulary. Explore the “Medical” or “Air Crew” sections for even more challenging terms that may be invaluable if you’re interested in healthcare development or commercial flying.
This program provides some of the most crucial language skills a soldier (or just an average traveler) could ever need. It never hurts to be prepared!
Note: If you want an even more in-depth experience of the former Soviet Union, check out the LSKs available for the native languages of Russian-speaking places other than Russia: Kazakh, Ukrainian and Uzbek. Otherwise, stick to all the other awesome Russian resources available on the web.
Golosa: A Basic Course in Russian, 5th Edition
“Golosa” (Voices) is the premier textbook for beginners of Russian and teaches how to actually write the cursive characters.
It also covers in detail the nuances of Russian pronunciation, and the website includes free online student activities, grammar supplements and vocabulary cards, among other resources. “Golosa” is great to use along with other great online courses for learning Russian.
Grammar Tables to Learn Russian by Learn Russian
If you’re a grammar nerd like me, you’re going to fall in love with this site.
Learn Russian includes features such as a Russian alphabet lesson with audio and practice, 100 lessons with tests, a mini-course on phonetics with tests, 100 vocabulary lessons and over a dozen topics with downloadable PDFs.
However, what makes the site outstanding is the collection of tables on almost any imaginable grammar topic (from countries and numbers to the Russian cases and motion verbs).
Each one of the 85 grammar tables includes explanations on a specific topic with lots of examples. The best part? They can all be downloaded for free in PDF format!
Reading is essential if you want to boost your Russian grammar and vocabulary.
The Interlinear book’s site allows you to read classics like The Death of Ivan Ilyich (by Tolstoy) or The Meek One (by Dostoevsky) even if you’re just a brave beginner with no idea of Russian, because each line of the Russian text is followed by its English translation.
What’s more, the Russian words include stress marks to help you with pronunciation.
You can buy each book separately, and choose from three different formats (PDF, MOBI and EPUB), which will make it super easy to print the e-book or open it on your device of choice.
If you’re an advanced learner of Russian ready to take the plunge, you can also get the Russian-only version of the books and feel like a native speaker, able to read some of the most beautiful pieces of Russian literature ever created.
News in Slow Russian
News in Slow Russian is an amazing resource for all learners who already know the Cyrillic alphabet.
When you enroll, you get lifetime access to over 500 news articles, interactive transcripts with stress accents on every word and over 50 hours of audio.
The biggest advantage of using this site is that the articles are divided into three levels:
- Level 1: This level can be used by upper-beginners. The audios are really slow so you’re able to understand everything, and the articles have been redacted to include mainly simple tenses. This level will help you build a vocabulary of around 1500 words.
- Level 2: The second level is ideal for intermediate and upper-intermediate learners. The articles for this level include the perfect tenses and will help students broaden their vocabulary while they listen to real Russian at the speed they choose (slow or normal).
- Level 3: The level for advanced students includes challenging grammar constructions, collocations, phrases and idioms. Learners will have access to more difficult pieces of news, and they’ll get to decide when they’re ready to change the speed of the audios.
RussianPod101 is one of the best options for students who like to learn on the go.
With over 1,750 video and audio lessons, Russian learning tools, flashcards, lesson notes and a comment section, learners who decide to buy a subscription to RussianPod101 will have access to hundreds of hours to learn the language of Dostoevsky.
If you’re not sure whether RussianPod101 is for you or not, you can buy a trial for one dollar and you’ll get 50 lessons, 30 days of Premium Access, one downloadable product of your choice and a seven-day Fluency Fast course.
Portable and Easily Accessible Tools
Online Diagnostic Assessment Proficiency Tests
One of the most important parts of language learning is keeping track of your proficiency (as I learned from Russian experts this past August at Duke University’s Summer Institute).
Tests and quizzes provide us with a tangible way (a test score) of measuring an intangible metric (our language level).
Proficiency isn’t only how we measure our own progress, but how others measure it, too.
That’s why the proficiency certification offered by the DLI’s Online Diagnostic Assessment (ODA) can be so valuable to those looking to use Russian in their work. It can also be a nice introduction to Russian testing, as preparation for other official tests like TORFL.
ODA is offered in both a Reading and Listening form, and tests last roughly an hour. First, however, the site must test your current level to compare against your exam. The possible levels range from 1-5 (lowest to highest).
With most newly-minted Russian PhDs only nailing a 3, 5 is the pinnacle of what a Russian speaker can achieve.
Reach it, and you may be getting a call from Langley soon!
Nemo Russian by Nemo Apps LLC
Nemo is ideal for flashcard lovers, with all its exercises consisting of cards with audio. Nemo Russian contains many words and phrases used in conversation, and no prior knowledge of the language is necessary to start using it!
Russian Alphabet Mastery – Learn Cyrillic in 3 Hours by Unique Digital Publishing
True to its name, this app will teach you the Cyrillic alphabet in less than a day, making Russian’s straightforward writing system even easier to master. Fire it up on your phone for easy reference whenever you come across any tough spelling.
SpeakEasy Russian by Pocketglow
This vocabulary mobile app is a personal favorite of mine, with its crisp audio, flashcard feature and “Getting Around” section, which will come in handy if you need some basic travel vocabulary.
SpeakEasy Russian also helps you learn some more practical everyday phrases not covered by other apps, and its paid version is worth the upgrade, offering hundreds of more phrases on topics like the environment and medicine.
Russian Dictionary + by iThinkdiff
Use this Russian mobile dictionary app to look up some of the tougher vocabulary you might find while learning the language. Your mastery of Russian reading will skyrocket once you’re able to understand advanced topics thanks to this cute, little resource.
Russian Alphabet by Hamdouchi Interactive, LLC
Brushing up on Russian letters with this beautifully designed alphabet app will make reading in Russian much easier. Plus, it’s got cute animal pictures!
YouTube never fails as an excellent source of Russian content.
You’re just a click away from Putin’s speeches, cool military vocab for war enthusiasts and notorious Russian stunt videos (acrophobes beware)!
Authentic videos help give context to Russian life and culture, though YouTube also has plenty of channels that teach Russian more directly.
So there you have it, a selection of the best tools you can use to start learning Russian, improve it and bring it to perfection.
Russian is a challenging language, especially because of its alphabet, declensions and pronunciation.
However, once you take the first step and start learning it, you’ll be marveled at the beauty of this decadently romantic language.
Stay curious, my friends, and as always, успешного изучения! (Successful study!)
Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He’s a proud language nerd, and you’ll normally find him learning languages, teaching students or reading. He’s been writing for FluentU for many years and is one of their staff writers.
Pat Goodridge studies linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. In his spare time, he works for a new Russian language-learning site, 3ears.com. He loves to study languages and run his Facebook page for linguists, The Linguist Lattice. A native speaker of English, he also speaks German and Russian.
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