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Applying Diverse Learning Tools
There are many approaches to learning languages, only a few of which will be discussed in the course of this article. It is important to discover which approaches work best for you, since everyone learns a bit differently. However, keep in mind that no single approach is going to give you a complete language education, either, so it is also important to integrate many different complementary approaches to get a full feel for the language and its applications.
Perhaps this will mean reading a little Tolstoy while you're chatting away with Russian friends who are somewhat removed from that generation and its style of speech; perhaps it means listening to some Russian folk music while you're exploring the nuances of formal Russian grammar. Applying some of these online resources will give you options to achieving just this right balance of methods that suit you.
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Russian Lessons Online
There are numerous websites offering free Russian lessons, so you have quite a few options. While there are none that the author of this article would say really stand out above the rest, and none are complete in their offerings, between them they offer a respectable introduction to the language. However, once you get to the intermediate level, you're a bit stuck—for the moment, you'll have to invest in a good ol' fashioned educational system. New resources are always being found on the Internet, so if you have a favorite not listed here, please share it with us using the Comments section.
Here's a listing of a few websites offering basic Russian lessons on grammar and vocabulary. There are largely free, though some require an account to use. Some also have newsletters that you can subscribe to, which provide daily or weekly Russian tips, and have links to other media. Others have audio files, articles on culture, and more. Explore them and see which particular blend suits you:
Bright Hub Education offers a limited number of articles on learning Russian, including this sampling:
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Russian Web Resources
Lessons aren't everything you need to learn a language, however. Basic resources like dictionaries are also a must.
WordReference.com offers up a pretty thorough series of translation dictionaries, including Russian. One particularly nice feature of the website is the forums, where both students of the language and native speakers alike congregate to ask and answer questions.
The Vasmer Etymological Dictionary provides a detailed, if somewhat spotty, account of the etymology of Russian words. This is sure to delight anyone with a linguistic or anthropological interest in the language, and will doubtless help you make connections to other languages and to Russian history.
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Russian Social Learning
The idea behind social learning is that you best learn a language by, well, socializing. By engaging the language with patient native speakers, you learn the language as it is actually spoken, and at the same time, have a lot more fun than you would by just engaging dusty old grammar books. These sites require a fair amount of dedication, both to build up your social networks and you are expected to reciprocate the aid to those who want to learn your own native language. Also, it is difficult to jump into this means of learning a language as a beginner, as it can be quite frustrating to even in a rudimentary fashion communicate with others until the intermediate level. Nonetheless, many people find social learning to be a highly effective means of practicing a language.
While the author is not aware of any specifically Russian social learning websites, there are a few general sites available that have substantial Russian communities:
Livemocha.com runs on a premise of combined social learning, which is engaged through IM and voice chats with fellow members, and lessons, which consist of levels that you advance through at your own pace from beginner to advanced. The website is free to use, and the author has found many Russian users on the site who are quite willing to help those who show an interest in their language.
Lang-8's focus is instead on blogging. Here, you write about anything and everything you can think of in the language that you wish to learn, and in turn get corrected by native speakers. There are no corresponding lessons, as with Livemocha, though this website is also free to use and has a good number of Russian users.
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Russian Media on the Web
The Internet functions as a great catch-all for culture. For purposes of learning Russian, this means that there is more native media available in the Russian language than you will ever be able to get through. Want a constructive way to kill time? Surf in Russian—drift from YouTube video to YouTube video of Russian music performances, or go through the galleries of Russian photographers, or read submissions by fledgling Russian writers at literature websites. Think of your favorite activities online, and then just try to do them in Russian.
A lot of the media might not make sense without context. Try, for instance, reading Wikipedia articles in Russian for a bit of background if you're curious why the heroine of the folk song Катюша happens to have the same name as a famous piece of Russian weaponry. This will give you both practice in translation and a piece of Russian history in relatively simple, easy-to-understand language.