Our foreign language skills are often judged by our pronunciation, don’t you agree? The good news is that Russian pronunciation is quite easy to master, as words are typically pronounced the way they are spelled.
In this guide, you will find useful tips on how to improve your Russian pronunciation – based on pronunciation mistakes that are typical of English speakers.
Why Is it Important?
Before we continue, let’s make one thing very clear: by improving your Russian pronunciation, we don’t mean getting rid of your accent. Having an accent is perfectly fine. However, pronouncing words the wrong way is an entirely different story.
Is incorrect pronunciation that bad? Yes. It causes misunderstandings between native Russian speakers and foreigners. Moreover, when mispronouncing Russian words, foreigners may fail to understand those words when spoken by Russian people.
The benefits of being understood clearly include speaking with more confidence, avoiding awkward situations where you might say something you don’t mean, and taking your understanding of fast spoken speech to a whole new level.
The Most Challenging Sounds in Russian
Let’s start with what is most difficult.
Some Russian sounds do not exist in English. Make sure you take your time to learn and practice them. Here are the most challenging Russian sounds:
- Ы - to pronounce it correctly, you would probably need to punch yourself in the gut. Instead, you can try to say oh! and smile at the same time.
Learn Russian “ы” with a toothbrush:
- Ж - like “sure” in “treasure”
- Ш - like in “Chanel”
- Щ - like in “sharing”
- Ц - like in “tsar”
- Р - see below for more tips on how to roll your “p”
- Й - like “y” in “may”
Here’s a useful tip on how to pronounce “Й” correctly:
To wrap it up, make sure to add the video below to your list – it teaches you how to pronounce all of the most difficult Russian sounds highlighted above:
The Rolling “P”
If you are struggling with your Rs, let us assure you that mastering the right sound is possible. Interestingly, even for native Russian speakers, the rolled “p” comes later than other sounds. Even more so, many Russians need professional help with their Rs.
So, the rolled “p” is called an “apical-alveolar trill” or simply “trill.” You can make a trill by forcing air past your tongue, making your tongue vibrate at the same time. It may come as a total surprise, but your tongue should be completely relaxed while making the sound.
Have a look at the YouTube video below to get some thorough practice:
The Soft and Hard Signs in Focus
When studying Russian, foreigners tend to forget about the soft sign “ь” and the hard sign “ъ.” What is natural for a native speaker may be difficult to explain to a foreigner.
The former causes the previous letter to become softer, whereas the latter kind of cuts off the previous letter, forcing you to make a pause between letters.
Did you know that the hard sign is mostly followed by a vowel? In most cases, it is usually “е,” “ё,” “ю,” or “я.” It is important to keep in mind that when these vowels are followed by the hard sign, they are pronounced as a combination of two sounds, with the sound “й” added to them: “йэ,” “йо,” “йу,” “йа.”
Vowel Reduction in Unstressed Syllables
The time has come to talk about the tricky vowel reduction that occurs in an unstressed syllable.
- “o” becomes “a” – to be more precise, the sound is closer to something between “o” and “a” - when unstressed
Examples: молоко́ (milk), окно́ (window), Ло́ндон (London).
- “e” becomes [ih] when unstressed
Examples: сестра́ (sister), река́ (river).
- “я” also becomes [ih] when unstressed
Examples: яйцо́ (egg), де́сять (ten).
The Russian language is famous for its challenging consonant clusters. There are 2-segment (“кость,” bone), 3-segment (“верблю́д,” camel), and even 4-segment consonant clusters (“встречать,” meet).
Notably, clusters of three or more consonants are frequently simplified, especially in casual pronunciation.
Consonant cluster simplification in Russian includes different methods and is arguably the result of historical simplifications. For example, in such words as “чу́вство” (feeling), “со́лнце” (sun), “се́рдце” (heart), and “шотла́ндский” (Scottish), one of the consonants in the cluster is dropped in spoken Russian. So, “чу́вство” becomes “чу́ство,” “со́лнце” – “со́нце,” “се́рдце” – “се́рце,” and “шотла́ндский” - “шотла́нский.”
What clearly makes it more difficult to master is the fact that the simplifications of consonant clusters are done selectively.
Improve Your Russian with Lingvist
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We make sure that you will be learning exactly what you need to. With nothing extra getting in your way, you will be making fast progress.
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