The birth of the Russian course
The challenge in bringing Babbel’s new Russian course to life was to find a way for users to type Cyrillic letters using a standard Latin keyboard. Content Project Manager Barbara Baisi from the Didactics department gives us the lowdown.
Can you please tell us a little about yourself?
I come from Italy and I’ve been working at Babbel since the very beginning in 2008. At that time it was a little smaller [laughs]. Now I coordinate Italian and Russian. I’ve been working on Russian since January. It was a big deal for all the departments in the company.
Was that because of the Cyrillic alphabet?
That was the main issue. How can our users type in Cyrillic letters? We have users all around the world and not everybody has a German keyboard or an English keyboard. At first we thought about asking people to select Russian [in the keyboard preferences] and sending them Russian stickers to put on the keyboard! But we wanted people to be able to use Babbel without any effort.
So we started looking at ways to convert standard keystrokes into Cyrillic letters. We chose a transliteration table (GOST 1971b) which is good for computers, doesn’t have too many keystroke combinations, and doesn’t use diacritics (although we do use the apostrophe to create the ‘soft’ sign and the ‘hard’ sign).
How does it work?
For letters that have a direct equivalent, like R, P, D, and A, it’s no problem. You type in ‘R’ and the Cyrillic ‘р’ appears. But if you have something like ‘ш’ [makes a ‘sh’ sound] you need something that doesn’t exist on a normal keyboard. German users would probably want to type ‘sch’, but our transliteration is ‘sh’, like the English spelling.
We chose a transliteration table that was universal. It could be a little better for German users or English users or Spanish users, but it’s a good compromise for everybody.
We had a lot of requests from our users. Russian was always top, along with Chinese and Arabic – and I think Greek too. We thought Russian would probably be the best one to start with. Chinese and Arabic will be even more of a challenge.
What’s your personal connection with Russian?
I loved reading, particularly Russian novelists – Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. One day I asked myself: how would it be to read Dostoyevsky in the original? So at university I chose to study German and Russian as my second language. Then I went to Moscow in winter for an exchange semester. I was living in Italy and it was quite warm in February, around 10°C. When we arrived in Moscow three hours later, it was –15°. Interesting difference.
Who else is on your team for the Russian course?
We had Larisa Bulanova come on board. Miriam and I were looking for a full-time Russian editor, because with a new language you have to create a lot of courses quickly at the beginning. The whole Didactics team helped out, with everybody trying at least one lesson – we don’t normally do that but this was a whole new concept. The process took seven months. It felt a bit like a pregnancy! [laughs]
What’s different about learning Russian with Babbel?
I believe we are the first language learning company in the world to do this kind of keyboard transliteration. Other companies provide a visual keyboard and you click on the Russian letters. You normally have to know the Russian alphabet first. In fact, we went the other way: although we display the keyboard with both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, we deliberately don’t let you click on it, so that you learn to type.
Are there any sounds that are unique to Russian, that don’t appear in other languages?
No, but there is one sound which is quite special, although it also occurs in Ukrainian and there’s a similar sound in Turkish: ы (its pronunciation is a bit like the ‘y’ in ‘happy’ but even further back in the throat).
Of Babbel’s seven reference languages, which is the easiest or hardest for someone who wants to learn Russian?
Good question. I don’t think any of them really, as Russian has Slavic roots, so it’s a different language family. It’s certainly easier for Polish learners.
Any other areas of the Russian language that are challenging?
There are six cases, which can be hard. And verbs are tricky. Although Russian only has three real tenses – present, future, and past – they have a tremendous number of prefixes and suffixes that subtly alter the meaning of the word. An example I can think of would be the difference between the word пить (to drink) and выпить (to drink up, to finish a drink). On the other hand, Russian has no articles!
What’s the plan for the next few months?
German and English users already have plenty of material online. In August we’ll release six new Words and Sentences courses, with roughly 600 new words and 70 sentences. We will also roll out beginner courses for French and Italian users.
Any advice for people learning Russian?
Don’t get scared by the alphabet! It’s much easier than you think. If you work with it intensively for a few weeks it becomes really easy to read.