Improve Your Russian Pronunciation: A Lesson
Have you ever noticed that people often judge your ability to speak a language on how well you can pronounce things? As long as you’re good at pronunciation, it means you must know the language.
But did you know there’s an even more important reason for why you should be able to pronounce Russian words quickly and properly?
Hi, I’m Denis, co-founder of Learning To Know Russian.
Thank you for joining us!
What a paradox… Even though good pronunciation is essential when learning a new language, people spend very little time studying pronunciation, if at all.
And to be very clear, pronunciation is not about being able to twist your mouth to say a difficult sound the right way. All that matters is being able to imitate Russian speech. You need to learn how to Russify your speech and sound like a Russian.
Why Pronunciation Is Such A Big Deal
But maybe you’re wondering why it’s such a big deal… What’s so bad about having an accent, after all? Who cares if you can’t say something the right way...?
Well, there is one very important reason why you must learn good pronunciation. It’s something no one’s probably told you before:
If you struggle to say something quickly in Russian, then you will also struggle to understand that same phrase when you hear it spoken out loud.
If you struggle to pronounce, you will struggle to understand!
I first studied English in University. Our professor was very serious about pronunciation. We learned about all of the muscles in our mouth. We used mirrors when we practiced new sounds.
We spent the first half of the course pronouncing, “This is that. That is this.”
Unfortunately, our entire course lasted only two semesters and we wasted half of it learning how to pronounce “this is that.” Did I have a perfect pronunciation by the end? No. Did I sound like a native speaker? Not even close.
Don’t get me wrong, pronunciation is very important. But you have to take the right approach. Pronunciation is a skill. You can choose to polish it forever, or you can just start with the basics.
You don’t need to spend long hours studying how the muscles in your mouth move and try to learn how to make your tongue do the right thing.
It’s really much less complicated. Just think about how children learn to talk. First, they spend a few years practicing. They listen, then repeat, listen, then repeat. Later on, if they still aren’t able to pronounce a sound correctly, they can work with a specialist.
Think like a child. Do it the easy way. Don’t start with complicated charts and guides for perfect pronunciation.
Have you ever thought about why it’s sometimes easy to notice a foreigner in a crowd, even if they aren’t saying anything?
One reason is that their facial muscles are in a different position. There’s one position for speaking English and another position for speaking Russian. Let’s call it “speech position”. The “speech position” is a very interesting concept, in my opinion.
Here’s a simple analogy. When a woman prepares to dance the tango, she puts on an evening dress and high heels. If she’s on her way to work out at the gym, she wears athletic clothing.
We wear different things before different activities. In the same way, each language requires a different facial expression. You need to use your muscles one way to speak Spanish and another way to speak Russian.
Don’t know what to do with your facial muscles before you say something in Russian? Well, just think about what the stereotypical Russian looks like. They never smile, right?
Here’s how to practice the proper Russian speech position: your tongue should lie flat at the bottom of your mouth and touch your lower teeth. Now, try to copy what a silent, no-smile Russian looks like!
Did you try it? Good. Now let’s move on to sounds. Remember that the sounds from your native language don’t correspond exactly to Russian sounds. Even sounds that look the same can be very different!
Let’s take a very simple word such as “STOP” and pronounce it.
First, in English: the tongue is up at a 45 degree angle for “S”, up for “T”, and still up for “P”. The tongue always stays up, and the word “stop” is pronounced quickly.
Now in Russian: “СТОП”. In Russian, the tongue is down for the С, up for the T, then down again for П. That takes time to do.
Sounds are pronounced differently in different languages, even if they look the same at first!
Author’s remark: In Russia you can just go to the road and raise your arm: cars from licensed taxi companies and private individuals who want to make some extra money will both stop for you. If the taxi does not have a meter, you need to negotiate the price before getting on. Tell the driver: На вокзал. Сколько будет стоить? (To the station. How much will it cost?). Also, be aware that if you have a strong accent, taxi drivers will charge you a higher price! They genuinely believe that foreigners can afford to pay more expensive fares. It turns out good Russian pronunciation can even save you some money…
Find more advice about Navigating in Russian Cities here.
“Extra Dangerous” Russian Sounds
Let me be clear: you don’t need to study charts and diagrams and sit for hours in front of a mirror in order to learn how to speak properly. That doesn’t help most people.
If you can’t properly pronounce “Р” or “Ж”, studying a diagram and putting your tongue in the right position won’t help. You will probably just waste your time and lose motivation, while getting no closer to being able to speak Russian without an accent!
But you do need to be familiar with the “extra dangerous” Russian sounds.
Pronouncing “Ы” is hard for almost any foreigner. Are you saying “бить” or “быть”? “Ми” or “мы”?
To say “Ы” properly, try saying “И” while punching yourself in the gut. Do you notice the difference?
How about the “Й”? It literally means, “short И” in Russian and the sound is VERY short. You can sing the “И”: и-и-и-и-и-и-и-и-и… but you can’t sing “Й”. Imagine being pricked with a pin: ОЙ! The “Й” sound is said with much more pressure than the “И”.
Russian “Р”. Your tongue vibrates and produces this sound, which is hard for everyone, even for Russian kids.
Sounds “Д” and “Т” may help. Pretend to be a tractor: тр-тр-тр, др-др-др.
“Ж” is a very strange letter and sound. The tip of the tongue is raised to the alveolar ridge and the tongue is pulled back. Try practicing with this crazy word: “жужжу”. Жу-жу-жу, жужжу.
The “Ц” is just one sound, although it looks like a combination of “Т” and “S”. Practice making the “T” sound as short as you possibly can: “тц-тц-тц”.
The “Ш” and “Щ” sounds are often mixed up. Often, people cannot tell them apart when they hear them. It may help you to know that the “Щ” sound is pronounced LONGER and softer: “щи-щи-щи”.
Know Your “Enemies”!
Find the Russian sounds that you do not have in your native language. It’s okay if you can’t pronounce all of these sounds the right way right now. Just knowing that these sounds are your “potential enemies” is a big step forward.
You can start by practicing these sounds silently. You don’t need to say anything out loud at first. You just need to learn to make the right movements. You need to teach your mouth to move quickly. We don’t want to learn how to speak slowly. We want to speak at a natural speed. Begin with individual syllables, and then move on to whole words and phrases.
Your mouth should be able to make movements that copy the movements of the Russian language. You need quick movements. This is ESSENTIAL, if you want to understand what people are saying.
Now, here’s the most important piece of advice:
Practice your pronunciation, but forget about your pronunciation when you are speaking. You don’t have to sound perfect. Just have fun when you’re talking!
Here's a quick summary of our conversation:
- Don’t be tricked: Sounds are pronounced differently in different languages, even if they look the same at first. Russify your pronunciation.
- Sounds that you don’t have in your native language are your “enemies”. Know them and remember them.
- Exercises that use phonetic charts don’t teach you how to use good pronunciation during a conversation. Listen and repeat. Learn to imitate Russian speech. Begin by repeating sounds silently.
- All of the language skills are connected! Don’t forget it! If you can’t pronounce something quickly, you won’t be able to understand it when someone says it out loud.
We will learn to sound like a real Russian native speaker. I’m calling it Repetition lesson.
P.S. One last thing. In order to make pronunciation more fun, try copying a Russian accent. Yeah, I’m serious; try to say something in your native language, but with a Russian accent. It’s not as easy as you think. You will need to use the right “speech position” and try to Russify the sounds.
Until next time!