In the eyes of a broke student, all free resources are equal…but to the broke and critical student, some resources may be more equal than others.
Memrise ★ ★ ★
Memrise is a free language-learning site akin to what I call “intelligent flashcards”. You basically memorize a set of vocabulary words, but with the aid of typing, multiple-choice, and speed review exercises. The app version of Memrise includes listening exercises. Users can select from either community-made Russian courses or a special course (Russian 1-Russian 7) designed by the Memrise Team. You can even create and “teach” courses of your own! Memrise’s interface is colorful and easy to navigate, and I love the “growing plants in the garden of your mind” theme. The same good marks cannot be extended to its content, however. There are plenty of courses to choose from, but unfortunately the majority of them are geared toward beginners and lower intermediate students of Russian. Because courses consist of flashcards, they don’t contain reference grammar or composition practice; it’s purely rote memorization.
Duolingo ★ ★ ★ ★
Duolingo is Memrise’s minimalist cousin, and it’s a pretty sweet package: the Duolingo Russian course takes students from beginner to mid-intermediate, covering everything from alphabet and subjunctive mood to spirituality and the arts. Each unit includes three to seven lessons on average, with helpful grammar notes at the bottom of the page. You’ll encounter several types of exercise in a single lesson: translation, typing, listening-typing, matching, and sentence composition. Progress is measured by “knowledge meters” for each unit, which need to be refreshed periodically. Keep the little green owl happy by reviewing each lesson before the meter reaches zero. You can test out of a unit if you already know the material.
Duolingo avoids many of Memrise’s problems, but has a few of its own. It doesn’t offer community-made content, so once you finish the Russian course, you’re done. Всё. Unless you want to stick around and refresh your knowledge meters, you’ll have to move on to a different language or a different website. I’ve also encountered hypersensitive grading: forget one L or add one S too many and you get the question wrong. Hopefully this is a bug and the Duolingo team will smooth it out soon. It’s not like the entire sentence is incorrect, just a very minor misspelling, which happens all the time (especially when using that tiny smartphone keyboard)!
One more thing: the app version of Duolingo has very annoying notifications, so I suggest you turn those off after downloading it.
Morpheem ★ ★ ★ ★
Morpheem is simple, but effective. It presents you with a sentence pulled from an article or story with several words underlined, then asks you whether you understand all words. Clicking on an underlined word will bring up its definition and example sentences (and sometimes a translation of the main sentence, due to a bug). Words you didn’t know are repeated to help you remember them, and clicked words reappear later in each 40-sentence review session. Morpheem deems a word “learned” after you see it seven times without clicking. There’s also recall exercises in which you’re given an English translation of a sentence and must identify missing Russian words. Exercises require some prior knowledge of Russian grammar. (Intermediate and advanced learners rejoice! This site is for you.)
This program comes with many features to help you measure your progress. You can set a vocabulary goal based upon TORFL/CEFRL levels or ability (communicate, travel, get a job). Graphs track your vocabulary size as it grows, and you can easily access learned words/examples via the learning/progress page. Morpheem claims to know 50,000 words, so don’t worry; you’ll be using this program for a while.
Morpheem’s main problem is its navigation, which can only be described as “broken”. You can get from the Morpheem homepage to your learning/progress page, but cannot go back. Once in the hypertext Russian grammar reference, you can’t get out. The only way I can sign out of Morpheem is by clearing my browsing history, which closes all active logins! It’s a bit frustrating, but understandable. Morpheem is an indie site, so maybe it’s still a WIP or its developers don’t have perfect programming skills. If you can look past Morpheem’s navigation problems, it’s still a great free Russian resource.
You need a social network (Facebook or Google) to use Morpheem. There is no app version of Morpheem yet.
BaBaDum ★ ★ ★
Are you a visual learner? If so, then Ba Ba Dum might be the program for you. Ba Ba Dum is a picture vocabulary game; no sentences or grammar to be found here. It offers five ways to learn vocab: 1 word + 4 possible images, 1 image + 4 possible words, 1 word on audio + 4 possible images, spelling exercises, and randomizer. Ba Ba Dum is addictive and its graphics are appealing, but with a vocabulary of only 1500 words, it may only help you for a short while.
Anki ★ ★ ★
Anki is another “intelligent flashcards” program. As you can tell from the picture, Anki’s graphics are reeeally bare-bones. You can either make your own vocabulary flashcards or download a premade deck. I’m currently practicing with the surprisingly helpful 1,395 Russian Verbs deck. The front of each “card” shows an English definition of the Russian verb and an example sentence in English, and the back shows not only the verb and the sentence translated, but a full declension table and more definitions of the verb as used in colloquial speech and figurative language. One of Anki’s unique features is that you decide when next to review each word. Options include <1 min, <10 min, 1 day, 4 days, 23 days, 1 month, and even 1 year.
Three downsides to Anki:
a) It’s frankly pretty dull,
b) It offers few premade Russian decks for Anglophones, and
c) It’s difficult to synchronize AnkiWeb (main) with AnkiDesktop and Anki apps. It’s best just to use the web version.
Master Russian and Russian for Everyone ★ ★ ★
Just some websites with Russian grammar lessons. Though pretty comprehensive, they don’t offer much interactive material aside from simple quizzes and listening tests. Not much else I can say about them.