5 Tips to Improve Your Russian Pronunciation

question do you speak Russian? in Russian
Wooden-framed chalkboard with the do you speak Russian? written in Russian, and some flags of Russia against a rustic wooden background. nito100 / Getty Images

Compared to English, Russian pronunciation is very easy because it follows simple rules. Most of the time, Russian words are pronounced the way they are spelled. Any exceptions are easy to memorize, as they are governed by strict but straightforward rules.

Russian consonants can be pronounced either as "soft" or "hard," creating extra sounds. There are 21 consonants altogether, with one of them, the letter Й, sometimes considered a semi-vowel.

There are also 10 vowels and two remaining letters which do not have sounds but are instead used to make a consonant hard or soft: "Ь" (pronounced MYAKHky ZNAK—the soft sign) and "Ъ" (pronounced TVYORdy ZNAK—the hard sign).

Follow these tips to improve your Russian pronunciation.

Russian Alphabet Pronunciation

There are more sounds than letters in Russian: 42 main sounds and only 33 letters. This means that some Russian letters can sound differently depending on their position and surrounding letters.

Vowels

The six main vowel sounds in Russian are written using 10 vowel letters.

SoundLetterSound in EnglishExamplePronunciationMeaning
ииeeлипаLEEpahlinden
ыыyyлыжиLYYzhyskis
ааaahмайMAH-y
 
May
аяyahмячMYATCHa ball
ооohмойMOYmy
оёyohёлкаYOLkaha fir / Christmas tree
ээehэтоEHtahthis
эеyehлетоLYEtahsummer
ууoohмухаMOOhaha fly
уюyuhюныйYUHnyyoung

Consonants

Russian consonants can be "soft" or "hard." This quality is determined by the letter that follows a consonant.

Soft-indicating vowels are Я, Ё, Ю, Е, И. The soft sign Ь also softens the consonant that immediately precedes it.

Main Rules of Pronunciation

Once you have learned how the letters are pronounced in the Russian alphabet, it is time to learn the main rules of Russian pronunciation.

Russian letters are pronounced in the same way as they are written unless they fall under one of the following exceptions:

Vowel Reduction

Russian vowels sound shorter and a little different when they are in an unstressed syllable. Some vowels merge into another sound, such as А and О into an "eh" or "uh," while others become weaker. The ways that unstressed vowels behave differ according to regional accent variations.

Unstressed O and A are pronounced as "AH" when they are positioned in a syllable immediately preceding the accented syllable, and as "UH" in all other syllables, for example:

  • настольный (desktop, adj.) is pronounced nah-STOL'-nyj
  • хорошо (good, well) is pronounced huh-rah-SHOH, with both unstressed syllables significantly shorter than the stressed one.

Unstressed E, Ё and Я can be pronounced in the same way as И, for example:

  • дерево (tree) can be pronounced as both DYE-rye-vah and DYE-ri-vah

Devoicing

Some Russian consonants are voiced, while others are voiceless. Voiced consonants are those that use the vibration of the vocal chords, e.g. Б, В, Г, Д, Ж, З, whereas voiceless consonants are those that don’t: П, Ф, К, Т, Ш, С.

Voiced consonants can sound voiceless if they are at the end of a word, for example:

  • Род (Rot): type, clan

They can also become voiceless when they are followed by a voiceless consonant, for example:

  • Лодка (LOTka): boat

Voiceless consonants can change and become voiced when they appear before a voiced consonant, for example:

  • Футбол (fudBOL): soccer

Palatization

Palatalization happens when the middle part of our tongue touches the palate (roof of the mouth). This occurs when we pronounce soft consonants, that is, consonants that are followed by the soft-indicating vowels Я, Ё, Ю, Е, И or the soft sign Ь, for example:

  • Катя (Katya) - Т is palatized due to its position before a soft-indicating vowel Я

Accent Marks in Russian

Learning the correct accent, or stress, in Russian words can be challenging because of the large number of rules and exceptions. The best way to learn where to place the accent is to memorize it from the start.

The letter Ё is always stressed but is rarely written as itself and is usually replaced with Е.

Other letters can be stressed or unstressed. It is important to know where to place the accent in a word as many Russian words change meaning when the accent is placed on a different syllable, for example:

  • МУка [MOOka] - suffering
  • муКА [mooKAH] - flour

Most Difficult Russian Sounds

There are some sounds in Russian that do not exist in English. Learning to pronounce them correctly will significantly improve your general pronunciation and ensure that you don't say something you don't mean. Many Russian words differ from each other by just one letter. Saying a word incorrectly may render the whole sentence difficult to understand, for example:

  • быть (to be) becomes бить (to beat) when the speaker doesn't say Ы correctly.

Let's look at the most difficult Russian sounds and learn how to pronounce them.

  • Ы - try to say oooooh and smile at the same time. This sound does not exist in English but is close to the i in linen
  • Ж - like sure in pleasure
  • Ш - like the first sh in Shropshire
  • Щ - like the second, softer sh in Shropshire - this sound is palatized by placing the middle of the tongue to the roof of the mouth
  • Ц - like ts in tsetse
  • Р - like r in Ratatata - this sound is rolled
  • Й - like y in May

Simple Exercises to Practice Russian Pronunciation

  • Watch and repeat Russian TV shows, films and cartoons.
  • Listen to Russian songs and try singing along—this is particularly good for understanding the way that Russian spoken language differs from the written Russian.
  • Watch YouTube channels dedicated to Russian pronunciation.
  • Imitate the way Russian native speakers move their lips and position their tongues. You will notice that it is very different from the habits of English speakers. Learning the correct mouth position is the biggest factor in improving your pronunciation.
  • Press the middle and the tip of your tongue into the roof of your mouth when pronouncing palatalized consonants.
  • Press the middle of your tongue into the roof of your mouth (creating the sound y) when pronouncing soft vowels.
  • Press the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth when pronouncing the vibrating Russian "Р." You can begin by saying D-d-d-d-d-d, eventually using the tip of your finger to vibrate the tongue side to side, creating the sound "Р." Here is a great video demonstrating how to do that.
  • Remember that syllables that consist of a consonant and a soft indicating vowel, such as "ня" or "лю," are pronounced as one syllable by placing the middle and tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth. Avoid making these into two syllables by incorrectly pronouncing them as, for example, "ny-ya." This is one of the most common mistakes when speaking Russian. You will see a great improvement in your Russian pronunciation once you learn to pronounce these difficult sounds.