Have you ever watched a film with a dastardly Russian villain in it?
Then you’ve noticed their strong Russian accents.
Sidenote: Why is it that Russians are mostly cast as villains in American movies?
We think it just may be due to those accents!
From the films, it is pretty easy to understand that Russian and English sound completely different. If you’re trying to learn authentic Russian, you must spend a significant amount of time practicing Russian pronunciation—that is, if you want to sound legit when speaking.
The fact is, learning how to pronounce Russian correctly is imperative to effective communication with natives.
The Russian language doesn’t have specific guidelines for using stress in words. So, if you stress the wrong syllable, a Russian word can have a completely different meaning!
Imagine walking into Home Depot and asking to purchase a castle. You’d get some pretty strange looks, right? However, by incorrectly stressing the word замок, you can change its meaning from a lock to a castle as зáмок means “castle” and замóк means “doorlock.”
Read below for recommendations for resources to learn Russian pronunciation, and eight actionable steps to practicing Russian out loud. From the rolling r’s to consonant clusters, Russian may not seem easy to pronounce, but it will definitely get easier with practice, especially after reading this helpful blog and utilizing other Russian learning tools!
3 Great Tools to Learn Russian Pronunciation
Before we jump into the steps to learn Russian pronunciation, I’ll share three great tools that you can use to practice along the way.
If you’re going to learn correct Russian pronunciation, you’ll need to hear the language as it’s truly spoken by Russian natives in all kinds of contexts.
Luckily, FluentU provides this experience!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
“Say It Right in Russian: The Fastest Way to Correct Pronunciation Russian”
If you’re shortly going on a trip to Russia or are planning a meeting with a Russian-speaking business partner, you may not have the required time to truly study Russian pronunciation.
This book is a handy resource to quickly learn how to pronounce hundreds of common Russian words and phrases.
“Russian Pronunciation Guide: The secret to speaking Russian and not sounding like an American”
This is a helpful book for intermediate Russian learners because it provides specific tips on not speaking Russian with an American accent.
8 Actionable Steps to Learn Russian Pronunciation Correctly
Don’t get lost when trying to pronounce Russian words and phrases.
Simply follow these eight steps and you’ll be on your way to speaking Russian like a native.
1. Learn the sounds of the Cyrillic alphabet.
The very first step in teaching yourself Russian pronunciation is learning the Cyrillic alphabet and how the letters are pronounced. Letters are the building blocks of words.
If you don’t know how to pronounce individual letters, you’ll never be able to pronounce entire words!
There are a total of 33 letters in the Russian alphabet, consisting of 11 vowels, 20 consonants and 2 pronunciation signs (ъ, ь) that have no vocal sound.
Although some of the letters may look and sound foreign, with effort, you can learn the Russian alphabet in just a few hours!
It helps that all Russian consonants have only one pronunciation, contrary to English. Plus, many of the letters will look the same (although they may sound differently) and vice versa!
2. Focus on the vowels.
A tip for pronouncing Russian vowels like a true Russian is to shorten their sounds. While Americans tend to stretch out vowel sounds, Russians don’t. Think about the difference between saying dome and d-o-o-o-me.
3. Learn the rules of vowel reduction.
Some of the vowels in Russian sound differently when they’re stressed versus unstressed, a process called vowel reduction.
A, o, e and я are reduced when they don’t have an accent mark above them (unstressed). Of course, Russian doesn’t typically have accent marks—these are just added for the sake of Russian students learning stress rules.
Learn the specific rules of vowel reduction to pronounce Russian correctly and avoid having to rely on text made for learners with accent marks.
4. Learn to pronounce Russian consonants correctly.
Russian words are famous for having many consonants, often grouped together, called consonant clusters. Examples include words such as: бди́тельный (vigilent), вто́рник (Tuesday) and завтра (tomorrow).
Consonants are pronounced without aspiration, which occurs when you let out air upon saying certain letters, like k and t. To pronounce consonants in Russian, learn the difference between voiced and voiceless consonants.
English has this distinction too: for example, the words pat and fat begin with a voiceless consonant, whereas the words bat and mat begin with a voiced consonant.
Simply place your fingers on your throat when pronouncing a Russian consonant, and if you feel your throat vibrating, you’re pronouncing a voiced consonant, otherwise it’s a voiceless consonant.
Russian voiced consonants include: в, г, з, б, д and ж.
Voiceless consonants include к, п, с, т, ф, х, ц, ч, ш and щ.
The rules of consonant assimilation state that the second consonant of the cluster determines how the first one sounds. Voiced consonants turn voiceless at the end of a word; for example the word год (year) is pronounced as гот (got) since the voiced consonant д is at the end of the word.
As well, voiced consonants change when they come before voiceless consonants. The word ложка (spoon) is pronounced лошка (loshka) because the voiced ж is followed by the voiceless к.
5. Practice rolling your r’s.
Russians roll, or trill, their r’s, a process called an alveolar trill. This is without a doubt the hardest step for Americans to master, as this sound doesn’t come natural to us.
One way to practice is to place a d in front of an r in words. For example, instead of saying, fridge, trying saying fdridge. You see how the R seems to be more pronounced?
To truly master trilling your r’s, remember that you need to focus on the tongue and not the throat. Learn where your alveolar ridge is located (hint, find the spot where your tongue touches the top of your mouth when you say the letter d).
Lift the tip of your tongue and allow it to vibrate while you breathe out. This is a step necessary to pronouncing trilled r’s. Now, practice saying Russian words with the letter r, such as рука (hand), рыба (fish) and речка (river).
6. Learn where to place accent marks to stress syllables in the Russian language.
As mentioned before, this step is of vital importance.
While there are no general rules for which part of the word can be stressed, the accent mark never falls on word endings ий and ый.
Again, keep in mind that you’ll only spot the accent marks in texts made for Russian students. Learn the correct stress so you can read authentic Russian texts without any trouble!
7. Use a mirror.
The fact is that Russians not only sound differently, they also use their vocal tools (tongue and lips) differently.
To make sure you’re using your vocal tools correctly, practice making your tongue arched and narrow rather than flat and wide, which we use to speak English. Practice in front of a mirror to make sure you’re doing it correctly.
8. Learn phonetic markers.
Although they’re part of the Russian alphabet, the мягкий знак (soft sign) and твёрдый знак (hard sign) make no vocal sound and are simply phonetic markers.
The soft sign palatalizes (softens) the consonant before it. Consider the different ways the letter n is pronounced in the words night and canyon—the n in canyon is palatalized and pronounced softer than the n in night. Soft consonants require you to arch your tongue against the top of your mouth.
Therefore, in Russian, the word кость (bone) shows a great example of how the letter т is softened because it’s followed by the soft sign.
The second phonetic marker, the hard sign, hardens the consonant preceding it. The hard sign was often written at the end of old Russian words, but it was eliminated in 1917 as being redundant.
Now, it’s found inside of words, and indicates not just that the consonant before it is hard (non-palletized), but that the vowel after it is soft and has a jot sound. An example of this is the word съесть (to eat), where the hard sign makes the c sound hard, while adding a jot sound in front of the e.
Don’t let Russian pronunciation get in the way of proper communication!
Follow the eight steps above to learn Russian pronunciation and grammar rules.
You’ll start sounding more like a Russian native than an American foreigner in no time!