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? Spies don’t really surf 50-foot waves or drive tanks through the streets of St. Petersburg!” (Lookin’ at you, Pierce Brosnan!)
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, US-Soviet relations would become chilled for decades to come. Demand ballooned for speakers of Russian, the language of America’s would-be foe.
As a result of the Soviet threat, it was no surprise that 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. The DLI is tasked with teaching the military the world’s “critical languages,” tongues like Russian that are of strategic importance to US foreign policy.
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 don’t be discouraged if boots and guns aren’t your thing—these resources are useful for all learners. They can help you out whether you’re interested in other areas like business and healthcare, or you just want to get a jump start on the language!
Thanks to DLI resources, you don’t need to be a spy to learn Russian like one.
DLI resources are tools readily 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 for 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.
The 13 Best Russian Tools for Language Learners
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 15+ 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 to 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.
Online tools that go great with LSKs:
Learn Russian™ by Greg Vick
This is a top Russian learning app for a reason: It offers broad yet relevant vocab lists and top-notch audio quality. What sets it apart is its voice-recording feature, which lets users record phrases and test their pitch. This is key to good pronunciation. Learn Russian will help you master Russian’s tricky pronunciation and ensure you’re understood when using phrases in the LSK.
Nemo Russian by Nemo Apps LLC
Nemo is ideal for flashcard lovers, with all its exercises consisting of cards with audio. Nemo Russian also contains many of the same phrases as the LSK, allowing you to practice on the go.
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 real-life context to the types of phrases in the Russian LSK, though YouTube also has plenty of channels that teach Russian more directly.
To pair the authentic online video experience with the support of tools made especially for Russian learners, check out FluentU’s Russian program. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. It provides one-of-a-kind content for learners that goes great on its own or with any of the DLI resources in this post.
Just a quick look will give you an idea of the variety of content available on FluentU:
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 vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
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!
Online tools that go great with Headstart2:
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 that Headstart2 only teaches you to recognize. It also covers in detail the nuances of Russian pronunciation, making the Headstart2 phrases much easier to sound out, and can be used along with other great online courses for learning Russian.
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 when coming across tough spellings in Headstart2.
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 is a terrific complement to Headstart2’s travel vocabulary. SpeakEasy Russian also helps teach some some of the more practical everyday phrases that Headstart2 doesn’t have space to cover, and its paid version is worth the upgrade, offering hundreds more phrases on topics like the environment and medicine.
Unlike Headstart2, 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—545 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 topics, like Security, Military and Politics, which provide information and vocab practice relevant to international security contexts.
Both the text and audio of 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 for those in any other field where knowing Russian will help.
Online tools that go great with GLOSS:
Russian Television by Serguei Khramtchenko
What could be a better way to learn to speak like a Russian than using an app made for Russians? This is one of the best Russian TV apps to put hundreds of authentic Russian-language shows right at your fingertips, offering exciting visual media to supplement all of GLOSS’s written material. Rossiya 1, the state-sponsored channel, gives a great insight into everyday affairs in Russia, while channels like Domashny offer lighthearted, juicy daytime programming with a distinctly Russian flavor.
Russian Dictionary + by iThinkdiff
Use this Russian mobile dictionary app to look up some of the tougher vocabulary found in GLOSS. Your mastery of Russian reading will skyrocket once you’re able to understand the many economic, political and technical terms in GLOSS’s excerpts.
Russian Alphabet by Hamdouchi Interactive, LLC
Brushing up on Russian letters with this beautifully-designed alphabet app will make reading in GLOSS much easier. Plus, it’s got cute animal pictures!
One of the most important parts of language learning is keeping track of one’s own proficiency (as I learned from Russian experts this past August at Duke University’s Summer Institute on Slavic and Eurasian Language Pedagogy, Research and Testing).
Tests and quizzes provide us with a tangible way (a test score) of measuring an intangible metric (our language level).
Proficiency is not 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 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!
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.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Russian with real-world videos.