How to lose your native accent in Russian in 28 days

How to lose your English accent in Russian in 28 days

An accent is the pronunciation style of a group of people from a particular country, area, or social group and a key part of appearing fluent in Russian is how well you approximate Russian phonemes (the sounds of each letter), correctly identify the stressed syllable in a word, adopt the right intonation and respect the natural flow of Russian.

Fortunately, unlike the 26-letter English alphabet – which possesses approximately 44 phonemes – the Russian alphabet possesses approximately 39 phonemes relative to its alphabet of 33 letters and there isgenerally only one way to pronounce each letter. This means that simply knowing which sounds correspond to each letter of the Russian alphabet, or how the two unpronounced letters influence pronunciation, will help you achieve around 85% accuracy in pronunciation.

1. Recognise the importance of correctly identifying the stressed syllable

Beyond books targeted at learners of Russian, you’d be hard-pressed to find reading support in the form of an accent to mark the stressed syllable in a word. The English language does not make use of stress marks either. However, there is something of a pattern in English word stress , which learners can rely upon in order to improve their pronunciation.

Butchering word stress in Russian can change =the meaning of the word intended to be used (for example, сóрок with a stress on the first syllable, is the number 40, whilst сорóк with the stress on the latter syllable, is ‘magpie’), leaving native speakers of Russian completely bewildered.

In addition, don’t make the mistake of assuming that because you know where the stress falls in one word, you can pronounce all of its inflections . In essence, you simply have to accept the fact that in Russian, the stress of a word can fall on any syllable, so in the absence of a clearly-defined set of rules, Russian learners must resort to repeated exposure to the word by native speakers, enlist the help of learning tools such as RussianGram which applies accent marks, or engage in brute memorisation, if something approaching perfection in pronunciation is desired.

Words which are spelt the same but have different grammatical or lexical meanings are called homographs. Download the poster below and study the most commonly encountered ones in order to improve your pronunciation in Russian and avoid awkward miscommunications in future.

TBC

2. Switch up your pronunciation of а, о, е and я when in an unstressed position

When the vowels а (artist),о (opera), е (yes) and я ( yard) are unstressed, they undergo a process called reduction and it is important to learn the correct pronunciation not only to ensure that native speakers of Russian can understand you, but also to ensure that you can understand words stored in your passive memory, which you acquired through reading (most likely with the incorrect stress and pronunciation). The process whereby the standard а (artist) and an unstressed о ( opera) are pronounced in the same way (as the standard а (artist)) is called а́канье in Russian.

3. Know your sibilants ( ж , ц , ч , ш and щ ) and the changes they trigger in the sounds of certain vowels which follow them

The sibilants ж (usual), ц (sets), ч (cheese), ш (short) and щ (ship) are so named because of the sound that directing a stream of air towards the teeth with the tongue in order to pronounce them, produces. After a sibilant, the pronunciation of the letter е changes from yes to egg and ё changes from yoga to o pera).

For example:

English

Russian

centre

ц е нтр (tsén-ter)

I went (by foot).

Я пошëл (ya pa-sh ól) (where ó reflects the IPA phoneme )

In addition, the long ‘e’ sound (think of the vowel sound in the words beep and leap), is shortened after a sibilant and sounds more like the i in instrument. This sound can be the result of the letter и (Free man), or е when preceded by a sibilant (the sound yes becomes egg). Also note that after a sibilant, the letter ы (Bill) is replaced by the letter и (Freeman).

For example:

English

Russian

car

машина (mash ína)

bigger

больше (bohl-sh eh)

4. Relax your tongue and lips as you pronounce п , т and к

If your first language is English, you probably strain your tongue and lips somewhat in order to pronounce the English consonants p, t and k. This will cause you to ‘aspirate’, forcing a gush of air out of your mouth as you pronounce these phonemes. If you want proof of this, bring your hand close to your mouth in order to feel the force as you pronounce these letters. Russian consonants are unaspirated, so relax your tongue and lips before pronouncing the Russian equivalents п (play), т ( tape) and к (like). Try to avoid releasing a puff of air with the letters.

5. Understand when final consonant sounds become devoiced

The consonants б (box), в (very), г (good), д (dog), ж (usual) and з ( zoo), are called voiced consonants because they cause your vocal cords to vibrate. Simply place your hand on your throat in order to feel this effect for yourself.

When positioned at the end of a word these six consonants become devoiced, meaning that our vocal cords no longer vibrate in order to produce the phoneme. Each of them possesses a voiceless consonant counterpart which is behind the loss of vibration.

2. Switch up your pronunciation of а, о, е and я when in an unstressed position

When the vowels а (artist),о (opera), е (yes) and я ( yard) are unstressed, they undergo a process called reduction and it is important to learn the correct pronunciation not only to ensure that native speakers of Russian can understand you, but also to ensure that you can understand words stored in your passive memory, which you acquired through reading (most likely with the incorrect stress and pronunciation). The process whereby the standard а (artist) and an unstressed о ( opera) are pronounced in the same way (as the standard а (artist)) is called а́канье in Russian.

3. Know your sibilants ( ж , ц , ч , ш and щ ) and the changes they trigger in the sounds of certain vowels which follow them

The sibilants ж (usual), ц (sets), ч (cheese), ш (short) and щ (ship) are so named because of the sound that directing a stream of air towards the teeth with the tongue in order to pronounce them, produces. After a sibilant, the pronunciation of the letter е changes from yes to egg and ё changes from yoga to o pera).

For example:

English

Russian

centre

ц е нтр (tsén-ter)

I went (by foot).

Я пошëл (ya pa-sh ól) (where ó reflects the IPA phoneme )

In addition, the long ‘e’ sound (think of the vowel sound in the words beep and leap), is shortened after a sibilant and sounds more like the i in instrument. This sound can be the result of the letter и (Free man), or е when preceded by a sibilant (the sound yes becomes egg). Also note that after a sibilant, the letter ы (Bill) is replaced by the letter и (Freeman).

For example:

English

Russian

car

машина (mash ína)

bigger

больше (bohl-sh eh)

4. Relax your tongue and lips as you pronounce п , т and к

If your first language is English, you probably strain your tongue and lips somewhat in order to pronounce the English consonants p, t and k. This will cause you to ‘aspirate’, forcing a gush of air out of your mouth as you pronounce these phonemes. If you want proof of this, bring your hand close to your mouth in order to feel the force as you pronounce these letters. Russian consonants are unaspirated, so relax your tongue and lips before pronouncing the Russian equivalents п (play), т ( tape) and к (like). Try to avoid releasing a puff of air with the letters.

5. Understand when final consonant sounds become devoiced

The consonants б (box), в (very), г (good), д (dog), ж (usual) and з ( zoo), are called voiced consonants because they cause your vocal cords to vibrate. Simply place your hand on your throat in order to feel this effect for yourself.

When positioned at the end of a word these six consonants become devoiced, meaning that our vocal cords no longer vibrate in order to produce the phoneme. Each of them possesses a voiceless consonant counterpart which is behind the loss of vibration.

[Insert image]

Voiced consonant

Voiceless consonant counterpart

б

п

в

ф

г

к

д

т

ж

ш

з

с

For example:

English

Russian

Voiced consonant

Voiceless consonant (not reflected in the written language)

Cyrillic representation of the change induced by voicing

bread

хле б

б

п

хлеп

shoes

обувь

в

ф

обуфь

friend

друг

г

к

друк

iron

утюг

г

к

утюк

year

год

д

т

гот

city

город

д

т

горот

entrance

вход

д

т

вхот

exit

выход

д

т

выхот

garage

гараж

ж

ш

гараш

knife

нож

ж

ш

но ш

husband

муж

ж

ш

му ш

frost

морoз

з

с

морoс

However, there are 5 exceptions to this rule: л (lady), м (motor), н ( now), р (no direct equivalent as this letter is rolled/trilled in Russian *) and й (boy). These letters do not possess devoiced counterparts.

*If you don’t know how to produce a trilled R sound, check out this video from Manu at Learn Italian with Italy Made Easy, focusing on the alveolar trill . I used it many years ago in order to learn how to roll my R in Italian and had it down within 11 minutes! The Russian trilled R is very similar in terms of positioning, so don’t worry about the fact the video was created with Italian learners in mind.

6. Learn the two-consonant cluster rule…

When a cluster of two consonants occurs, it is the second consonant in the cluster which determines the pronunciation of the first consonant.

n If a voiced consonant appears before a voiceless consonant, then the voiced consonant should be pronounced like its voiceless counterpart.

For example:

English

Russian

Voiced consonant sound

Voiceless consonant counterpart (not reflected in the written language)

Cyrillic representation of the change induced by voicing

subtitles

субтитры

б

п

супт’итры

tomorrow

завтра

в

ф

зафтра

around the table

Вокруг стола

г

к

Вокрук стола

vodka

водка

д

т

вотка

spoon

ложка

ж

ш

лошка

fairy tale

сказка

з

с

скаска

n If a devoiced consonant appears before a voiced consonant, then the devoiced consonant should be pronounced like its voiced counterpart. This is called consonant assimilation and you can read more about it here.

English

Russian

Voiceless consonant (not reflected in the written language)

Voiced consonant

Cyrillic representation of the change induced by voicing

The Bishop of the city of Rome.

Епископ города Рима.

п

б

Епискоб города Рима.

I bought the scarf in Greece.

Купила шарф в Греции.

ф

в

Купила шарв в Греции.

station

вокзал

к

г

вагзал

football

футбол

т

д

фудбол

rest, relaxation

отдых

т

д

оддых

A pencil without lead.

Карандаш без грифеля.

ш

ж

Карандаж без грифеля.

What’s your name?

Как вас зовут?

с

з

Как ваз зовут?

I am going to the cinema with my friend.

Я иду в кино с другом.

с

з

Я иду в кино з другом.

Note that the voiced consonants л (lady), м (motor), н ( now), р (no direct equivalent as this letter is rolled/trilled in Russian ) do not affect the pronunciation of the preceding consonant.

7. Train yourself to pronounce awkward clusters of consonants

Two to four-consonant combinations are fairly common in Russian and present a unique challenge for those whose first language is English. Perhaps one of the most iconic examples of this phenomenon in Russian is the wordздравствуйте (zdrás-tvu-tyeh), meaninghello. Fortunately, the first letter в ( very), is silent, making the task a tad bit easier. However, getting your mouth to reproduce the sounds is nonetheless challenging. Practice is key to achieving this feat effortlessly. You can begin with the words below, where the difficult-to-master consonant constellations are in bold text:

English

Russian

Christmas

Рождество

circumstance

обстоятельство

crime

пр еступление

hello

здр авствуйте

nonsense

взд ор

opinion

взгл яд

to congratulate somebody

поздравить кого-то

to have breakfast

завтракать

to look/glance at

взгл януть на

to turn something on

вкл ючать


Tip:
Use Forvo to hear the words pronounced by real native speakers of Russian and create your own transliteration of the Cyrillic script in order to support your learning.

For a longer list of words featuring consonant clusters, check out The Russian Blog, here .

8. Appreciate the difference between hard and soft consonants in Russian

The two unpronounced letters in the Russian alphabet – the soft sign ь (🔈 мягкий знак ) and the hard sign ъ (🔈 твёрдый знак ) – alter the pronunciation of a phoneme (the sound that any one letter represents). The two signs follow consonants and indicate whether they are soft or hard – in other words whether they should be palatalised, or not.

The soft sign is a sign that palatalisation is required. A palatalised consonant is one which involves bringing the blade of the tongue towards the roof of the mouth where the hard palate is located. The English wordsnew, onion, canyon and pure demonstrate this linguistic concept. All other consonants are deemed to be non-palatalised (with the tongue in a normal position) and / or velarised in the eyes of some linguists, meaning that the tongue is brought far up and back in the mouth towards the soft palate. Pronounce the letter U aloud, for an approximation of what velarisation looks like.

The hard sign ъ is largely obsolete in modern day Russian, following a spelling reform in 1918. However, you may still encounter it in books published before then.

By default, consonants are described as hard. Consonants can be rendered soft in accordance with the vowel which follows them, or with the use of the soft sign ь. The vowels used to soften a consonant are e,ё, и, ю and я. For example, compare 🔈 нос (nose) with 🔈 ось (axis), or 🔈 лю к (hatch, manhood) with 🔈 лу г (meadow). When Russian is transcribed into the Latin alphabet, the soft sign is represented by an apostrophe (’).

The consonants ж, ц, ш are generally always hard, whilst й, ч and щ are always soft, variations in dialect aside.

For the purposes of indicating palatalisation, the soft sign is used after consonants and at the end of a word. In order to indicate palatalisation before a vowel sound however, one of the softening vowel letters should be used: e, ё, и, ю or я.

For more on hard and soft consonants, check out this video from Amazing Russian and this video from Russian Grammar. Also, this guide from Russian Learn.

9. Learn and practice the correct tongue placement for the various phonemes

Use a diagram like the one below in order to understand the organs used in the process of speaking. This will help you to understand the positioning required to reproduce sounds akin to a native speaker. An entertaining and underutilised manner of developing the muscle memory required for pronunciation to become second nature, is to make use of tongue twisters ( скороговорки in Russian)! Speech therapists often use tongue twisters to help people improve diction by training their tongue to distinguish similar phonemes. You’ll find audio here , videos here,here and here and a list of 200 Russian tongue twisters on a Russian website here .

10. Get your teeth in the correct position for the voiced and unvoiced consonants в and ф

Don’t place your upper teeth on your lip in order to pronounce the softened Russian в and ф. Instead, your upper teeth should remain behind your lower lip.

For more on this, check out this video, which clearly explains and demonstrates the ideal positioning of your teeth and lips.

11. Learn when в is voiced, or becomes devoiced when it doesn’t appear as a final consonant

The letter в is voiced when followed by a vowel or a voiced consonant, but devoiced when followed by a voiceless consonant.

For example:

English translation

Russian

Is the first ‘в’ devoiced?

In a car

в а втомобиле (followed by a vowel)

No – pronounced as в

In Europe

в Е вропе (followed by a vowel)

No – pronounced as в

In the East

в В осточной (followed by a voiced consonant)

No – pronounced as в

In the water

в в оде (followed by a voiced consonant)

No – pronounced as в

I was in Germany.

Я была в Германии. (followed by a voiced consonant)

No – pronounced as в

But…

English translation

Russian

Is the first ‘в’ devoiced?

In the end

в к онце концов (followed by a voiceless consonant)

Yes – pronounced as ф

to repeat

Повторять (followed by a voiceless consonant)

Yes – pronounced as ф

Learn more about this topic here .

12. Get your head around important quirks relating to the pronunciation of г

n Generally, the letter г is pronounced as a voiced velar plosive (think of the English g in g ood). That is, the sound is produced by temporarily blocking the flow of air through the oral passage, then producing a burst of air.

However, in Southern Russian dialects, this letter represents the sound that is produced when air is forced through a small hole in the mouth, therefore making it a velar fricative . In some words, the latter pronunciation (that is, in the form of a velar fricative) may be heard. However, it does not feature prominently in educated speech.

For example:

English

Russian

God

Богу

rich, luxurious, affluent

богатый

God, Lord

Господь (this is an exclamation)

with God

с Богом

gods, deities

боги

benefit, good, blessing

благо

A-ha!

Ага!

Wow!

Ого!

Wow!

ого-го

n The letter г is pronounced as в when it appears at the end of masculine and neuter adjectives and adjectival pronouns declined in the genitive and accusative cases. This pronunciation change occurred because 17th-century Muscovites (natives of Moscow), developed the habit of pronouncing г as в, and this was then adopted by the mainstream.

For example:

English

Russian

A lot

много

his

его

mine

моего

which, what (interrogative)

какого

red

красного

today

сегодня*

blue

синего

Of what?

Чего?

n The letter can represent a voiceless х when it appears before к in two Russian words and any words derived from them.

English

Russian

soft

мягкий

light

лёгкий

13. Don’t overlook the consonant devoicing which takes place beyond the final position

Devoicing does not occur in the final consonant alone; it can occur in other positions. Therefore the infinitive verbs вести and везти are homophones. However, context should clear up any confusion which might otherwise arrive as a result of homophones created through the process of devoicing.

14. Understand all of the ways in which we can arrive at the pronunciation щ with other combinations of consonants (namely, шч, жч and зч )

Historically, the letter щ was pronounced as a combination of ш and ч in Russian. However, the standard pronunciation today can be heard here . This is a voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant , in which you are sure to have noticed the absence of a ‘ch’ ( challenge). It is simply pronounced as a long ‘sh’ sound (think ship).

The pronunciation of the consonant cluster сч differs according to region. For the most part, no distinction is made between сч and щ, meaning that both of these letter combinations give rise to a long ‘sh’ sound (think ship).

For example:

English

Russian

happiness

сч астье

bill, account

сч ёт

about, with regards to, regarding

насчёт

to count

сч итать

But consider the following examples, where с andч are clearly pronounced as distinct letters, with с falling at the end of the prefix and ч beginning a new syllable at the start of the root.

English

Russian

to exhaust, deplete (e.g. to exhaust all options, to deplete one’s oxygen supply)

исчерпать

to disappear

исчезать

to draw (up)

расчертить

to sneeze repeatedly

расчихаться

The consonant clusters жч and зч are pronounced as щ.

For example:

English

Russian

man

мужчина

loader

грузчик

15. Don’t make the mistake of palatising ш simply because you see the soft sign ь

The addition of the soft sign ь after ш in the second-person singular (ты) form of present tense verbs and in feminine nouns, does not alter the pronunciation of ш. The letter ш is always unpalatalised.

For example:

English

Russian

You write / you are writing (informal)

пишешь

You read / you are reading (informal)

читаешь

16. Consider shadowing in order to gain native-like pronunciation.

Shadowing involves repeating words and phrases pronounced by a native-speaker of the target language (in our case Russian), mimicking intonation in order to improve pronunciation. You can learn more about it from the phenomenal polyglot Dr Alexander Arguelles here.

17. Master the international phonetic alphabet (IPA)

If you’ve made it this far, you have no doubt noticed my attempts to include an approximate indication of how a phoneme ought to sound using Latin transcriptions. However, this is not as accurate as using the IPA, a standardised system established for categorising phonemes (speech sounds) in languages worldwide. The IPA relies upon around 200 symbols, which will help you to perfect your pronunciation, telling you the correct positioning of the mouth and tongue, correct airflow control and more, so that you can more accurately imitate native pronunciation.

You can find a chart containing all of the phonemes in Russian, with an English approximation here. The language learning tool Glossika also provides you with in-built IPA text alongside the Russian text and an audio recording, so that you can easily map the symbols to the correct pronunciation.

Resources

Fluent Forever – Russian pronunciation trainers

Features a series of videos and audio-visual flashcards, which will help you to pronounce Russian phonemes correctly. Bookmark this page in order to use the pronunciation trainers effectively

Language360

Free audio recordings from male and female speakers, featuring voiced and devoiced consonants.

Real Russian Club

Provides an explanation of the difference between hard and soft consonant sounds.

Russian Alphabet

A fantastic resource for practising the sounds of letters in the Russian alphabet when combined with other letters.

Russian for everyone

Comprehensive lesson on voiced and voiceless consonants, the devoicing of final consonants and consonant clusters.

Russky

A clearly laid out summary of Russian phonetical rules, complete with audio.

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