How to Learn Russian Online: 7 Common Mistakes to Avoid

By Ari Helderman
October 26, 2021

If you want to learn Russian online, consider yourself lucky.

Imagine wanting to learn Russian from home 20 years ago. Your only options would’ve been:

  • Get a dusty textbook
  • Pay for a tutor to come to you
  • Get Russian learning CDs

Compare that to the massive amount of Russian material you can find now: hundreds of Russian learning apps, courses, websites and YouTube channels.

We used to have a problem of not enough Russian learning material. Today you have the problem of too much Russian learning material.

This gives a host of other problems and challenges for people trying to learn Russian in 2021.

In this article you’ll find the main mistakes that my students make when trying to learn Russian online.

Here’s a summary.

How to learn Russian online: 7 Common Mistakes to Avoid:

  1. Believing an app can teach you how to speak Russian
  2. Constant switching between different courses
  3. Focusing narrowly on one aspect of the Russian language
  4. Deciding every day what you’re going to do instead of having a plan
  5. Choosing an approach that doesn’t fit your personality
  6. Forgetting to keep your practice fun
  7. Trying to learn Russian for free without spending a single dime

Can you really learn Russian online?

Yes, you can. I’m the living example. I started learning Russian in 2016, and I have never taken any classes at all. I just used the online resources that were available, and practiced speaking with native Russian speakers.

So it is possible. But there are things that can derail your progress completely. Or make you waste time. This article will teach you exactly the mistakes to avoid if you want to learn Russian online.

By the end of this article, you will be able to make consistent progress learning Russian. With only using online materials.

So let’s get started with the first most common mistake:

Watch this video where I tell you in Russian (with English subtitles) 9 reasons why Russian is actually easy to learn.

1. Believing an app can teach you how to speak Russian

A common mistake many beginner learners make is believing that just following an app is enough to become fluent in Russian.

It’s partly the fault of the language learning apps themselves. As their marketing promises a lot. Duolingo for example says that it’s the ‘easiest way to learn a new language’. And while apps can be useful for learning vocabulary, they’re not good enough to learn Russian on its own.

So let’s take the scenario where you start learning Russian with a language learning app. All is well for the first 2 weeks, where you learn new Russian words and phrases. But after a couple of weeks, you start feeling a bit off. Grammar feels difficult, and now you learn words that are not completely relevant.

You also met a native Russian speaker during this time, and tried to say some phrases. But you found it difficult to understand him. And it was tough to speak phrases yourself.

What should you do instead of using only apps?

Apps are a great tool for beginner Russian learners. If you’re completely new to the Russian language, then they can give you a good overview of the language.

But once you reach a specific point after a couple of weeks, you must step up your game. Here it’s best to switch to a paid resource. As those have better progressions, and focus on each aspect of learning Russian. Also, if you want to learn Russian, you must also consistently practice speaking Russian. And that is something that is best done in the real world.

2. Constant switching between different courses

A second mistake that many Russian students make is constantly switching between courses. An example would be a person that signed up for RussianPod101, and then started learning. But after 2 weeks, they see an ad for Russian Accelerator, and sign up for that program.

There is nothing wrong with trying out different programs. But at a certain point you must pick one course. And then follow it to completion. And then relisten to the entire thing.

Each course has been built to get you from point A to point B. If you quit halfway, you will have learned something, but way less than if you would’ve completed it.

Another example if you want to learn Russian online, would be switching between free Russian apps. Since they don’t cost anything, there’s no direct cost in switching. Say you’ve started to learn Russian with Memrise. But after 2 days you get a bit bored and install Busuu. You do it again for 3 days and now switch to Duolingo. It feels like more of the same and you try Ankidroid. Since you now spent a week without any apparent progress, you’re likely going to be demotivated to continue.

If you would’ve spent this entire week on just 1 app, you would’ve made more progress. Which would have motivated you more.

What should you do instead of switching between courses?

Pick one app/course/program and stick to it. After you’ve completed it, do it again. That’s because repetition cements all the knowledge in your mind.

When I started to learn Russian, I listened to the Michel Thomas Russian course 3 times before I switched to RussianPod101. And that course I re-listened to 2,5 times. Because I listened for a long period to just 1 type of input, my brain was better able to grasp the concepts explained in the Russian lessons.

Now, if you’re unsure which course to listen to, it’s okay to try a couple different ones. But don’t spend too much time on each. Give it a trial lesson, or spend an hour on it. Then compare the teaching style with other courses and make your decision. And once you’ve made your decision, stick to the course till you’ve finished it.

3. Focusing narrowly on one aspect of the Russian language

A friend of mine is married to a Russian woman. They’re already been together for 5+ years. He has spent many summers in Russia, so you would expect his Russian to be good.

But once you try speaking Russian with him, you notice that it’s super basic. He doesn’t know Russian grammar, and his vocabulary is limited. He understands it quite okay, but not good enough to watch a Russian movie.

The reason that his Russian is not that good, is because he took the ‘speak only’ approach. He didn’t listen to online Russian learning courses, and didn’t focus on learning Russian vocabulary.

Because of that, he finds it difficult to have conversations in Russian. Even though he has been together with his Russian wife for almost twice as long as I have with my girlfriend.

The problem here is that to learn a foreign language, you must focus on several different aspects:

  • Speaking
  • Russian grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Listening skills
  • Cultural understanding

If you skip on any of these, your language skills will suffer.

What should you do instead?

You need to make sure that in your daily Russian learning, you do all of these things. Or at least every week. If you’re following an online Russian course that teaches you grammar and vocabulary, you must add the other 3 as well. You could practice speaking on an online language exchange. And watch Russian series to improve your listening skills and learn more about the culture.

4. Deciding every day what you’re going to do instead of having a plan

Another common mistake if you want to learn Russian online is not having a plan. If you’re randomly deciding what you’re going to do every day, you’re going to waste a lot of time.

Say you have an hour today planned to learn Russian, but you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do. So you just hop on YouTube and type ‘Learn Russian’. Now you see all sorts of videos with varying difficulty levels. If you watch something, and then go to another video, there won’t be a clear progression. Maybe the first video was for beginners, and the second more for intermediate learners.

This causes you to lose time, and waste effort. Like we said before, it’s much better to not switch around with different programs and methods.

What should you do instead?

You should have at least an idea which direction you want to go. I’m not saying that you should plan every minute of your practice sessions. But it’s good to at least know which app, course or program you’re going to follow for the next month. Or if you’re going to watch a series of movies.

5. Choosing an approach that doesn’t fit your personality

The best way to learn Russian is the method you can consistently follow. If you learn best on your own by listening to audio Russian lessons, then you should do that. If you want to learn Russian online, but you’re an extrovert who learns best by connecting to other people, it might be better to go to real life Russian classes.

If you love reading, then you probably should incorporate reading basic Russian books.

But if you have ADHD, going for a more interactive and stimulating method, will help you learn Russian much more effectively.

What should you do instead?

Ask yourself what your preferred way to learn Russian would be. What subjects did you love most in school? Were those stimulating interactive lessons. Or more geared towards self study. Do you love to read? Or do you prefer to listen?

Then use those answers to choose the correct online Russian lessons course, or method.

6. Forgetting to keep your practice fun

When I was 23, I decided I was going to speak Russian at a C1 level in one year. My Russian back then was probably A2 or maybe B1. I created a solid plan for myself, and was stoked to improve quickly.

However, after following my plan for 3 days, I got burned out. And I stopped learning all together for a week. Turns out my plan was too ambitious, and just too boring for me.

I don’t do well with continuous repetition of the same thing. I learn much better if it’s dynamic. So that means lots of speaking, different audio lessons, and plenty of Russian media. Those are all fun methods to learn.

If it’s fun, it means you’ll look forward to doing it. If all you’re doing is reading a thick boring Russian grammar book, you likely won’t look forward to it. And that means you’re more likely to skip practicing Russian. And if you skip your daily practice session, it won’t become a habit.

If it’s not a habit, you won’t consistently practice. And the best way to learn Russian is to consistently practice. So now you have a problem.

What should you do instead?

Don’t take this too seriously. Your life doesn’t depend on you learning Russian. For 95% of people this is a hobby. If it takes you a couple months longer, it doesn’t matter. You won’t lose your house, job or loved ones because you’re not learning Russian fast enough.

It’s much better to take a relaxed and fun approach to learn Russian. That will keep you motivated, and prevent burn out.

The Navy Seals have a saying: go slow to go smooth. Go smooth to go fast.

If you take a relaxed fun approach, you likely will make more progress than the student who’s uptight and way too serious about this.

7. Trying to learn Russian for free without spending a single dime

The internet is awesome. It gives you hundreds of free resources. And in theory you can learn Russian for free online.


That will take you much longer than if you were to pay for a good program.

I’m not saying you should invest thousands of dollars into learning Russian. That’s not necessary at all.

But if you try to get by using free Russian language apps, free podcasts, and free YouTube content, you are going to have a hard time making real progress.

If something is free, it means that the creators likely do not have the means to create a good progression line. And to make it an effective learning Russian resource.

On the other hand, paid Russian course creators have so much more ability to create good courses. As people pay them, they can then focus full time on creating Russian courses.

If you try to learn Russian for free, it’s like trying to gain muscle by doing pushups. Sure, it works in the beginning, but you’re going to hit a ceiling quickly. If you were to pay a bit of money to go to the gym, you can continue making progress. And you’ll build more muscle faster, since you can give your body the resistance it needs.

What should you do instead?

If you’re unsure whether you want to commit to the Russian language, it’s fine to use free Russian resources. This means the first couple of weeks of language learning.

After that, in order to progress well, you must sign up for the paid courses.

What scenario would you prefer?

  • Be able to have conversations in Russian in 90 days and pay $500 for lessons.
  • Be able to have conversations in Russian after 1 year and do it all for free.

I don’t know about you, but I would pick scenario 1 every single time.

How to effectively learn Russian online?

We’re lucky to be learning Russian now. Only 20 years ago it would’ve been difficult to find enough resources to learn Russian.

20 years ago, your options would’ve been to sign up for real world classes, go to Russia, or get a textbook.

Now we have access to hundreds of online Russian courses, apps, websites, YouTube channels and more.

This means that it’s much easier to find the type of materials that work effectively for you.

And that makes it more likely you enjoy the process of learning Russian. And if you enjoy the process, you’re much more likely to achieve a proficient level in Russian.

What should you do next?

Learning Russian does NOT need to be difficult. All you need is a solid plan that helps you improve the following things daily:

  • vocabulary
  • grammar
  • listening skills
  • speaking skills

That's ALL you need. If you can do this for a couple of weeks, you’ll already be making great progress in your Russian skills.

And the best part? If you improve a little bit every day, soon these practices will become daily habits.

And then you will start making progress on autopilot.

This means that learning Russian is now a part of your daily routine. So you won’t even need discipline anymore to get yourself to practice.

If you like the idea of this, but don’t know where to start, go here for more information.

About the Author

My name is Ari Helderman and I help people learn Russian through videos and blog posts where I share my experience.   I have been learning Russian since 2016. I often get mistaken for a native speaker these days, so I've learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn't if you want to speak Russian well.

Ari Helderman