The Babbel Blog

language learning in the digital age

The birth of the Russian course

Posted on July 29, 2014 by

Russian course - Barbara Baisi

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.


Russian course - Barbara Baisi and James Lane

Why Russian?

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.



I love the start into the russion beginners class sofar and really hope that there are now intermediate classes in preparation to continue the great explanations contained in the beginners course. Too bad that the vocabulary trainer from the website does not seem to be synced with the Android app, that should however be resolved hopefully soon.
What else is planned for the russion classes?

Found this article while trying to find a way to turn off the keyboard solution/short cut in favor of just using a Russian keyboard. It doesn’t seem you currently offer an option for that, but it’s something I would love to see in the future. I strongly feel learning the new alphabet, plus combination keystrokes is more difficult than simply learning a new keyboard layout. I constantly get answers “wrong” because I use the ‘c’ key, when your keystroke solution needs me to type the ‘s’ key to make the ‘c’ character. I’ve installed a Russian keyboard translation on my computer and am using it with other programs. It would be so much easier if your program was unified with that. Why wouldn’t an on-screen keyboard have been a good solution?!

i believe that through this helping, i shall speak correctly . i trust in.

i joy to learn because my company speak also english.
sometime i get the problem

English is spread allover. So I think it’s good to learn it as soon as possible

The Russian course is really great. I find learning very entertaining and do about an hour a day.

Please lets have an intermediate course so we can continue using Babbel.

THANK YOU SO MUCH for the russian course!
I have been trying Rosetta Stone (too expensive) and busuu (too playful, I have ADD and my attention gets too fast away when everything is too colourful) before and also tried a bit around with babbel in nowegian (I am living there) and polish (Love the country) before and liked it a lot. Over and over again I asked for russian and now its finally there.
I dont know yet if I am happy with the keyboard solution, but I will try it out and hope to get used to it…
I hope you will keep the course growing so I can built up my russian knowledge for my holiday next year.
Spassibo!!!! Ich freu mich wahnsinnig darauf mit russisch durchzustarten 🙂

Ach ja…. ich hoffe es wird einen Vokabeltrainer geben der auch “rueckwærts” abfragt ? Das wære toll!

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