Does anyone here find Russian pronunciation challenging? Perhaps you are learning Russian abroad and don’t get to hear native speakers very often. Or maybe, despite hearing them, you just can’t grasp how they produce the sounds of Russian and cannot quite repeat them. Let’s hope that’s not the case. But whatever your accent in Russian may be, I often find that working on a few pain points can drastically improve one’s pronunciation. Even if you can’t sound 100% native, tackling these aspects will help make your Russian flow smoother and be easily understood by Russian speakers.
1. Х sound
X is very prevalent in many Russian words, especially since it appears in adjective case endings, like больших (genitive plural of “big”). People tend to either “under-pronounce” х by skipping it altogether or doing the quiet exhale; or “over-pronounce” it by making a dry gargling sound in their throat. The actual sound is somewhere in between. You can find a technical description on Wikipedia, but here I would like to share some pronunciations by native speakers. All recordings come from forvo.com, which I recommend you use for looking up words you have doubts about.
хан – khan
This sound also appears in words of Greek origin that had the letter chi (χ) in the Greek – техника, механика, химия. Languages like English or Spanish tend to have a straightforward “k” sound in these words, so speakers on these languages may be tempted to say it that way in Russian, too. Resist the temptation. Here is an example of a word of Greek origin.
механизм – mechanism, machine
2. Soft sounds
Soft, or palatalized, sounds are formed by lifting your tongue against the roof of your mouth. That’s the technical description, which may be hard to fathom. You can also imagine that you go to pronounce an “ee” sound after the consonant, but don’t actually end up saying it.
As you probably know, a saying a “hard” (unpalatalized) consonant instead of a “soft” (palatalized) one can alter the meaning of the word. Some examples can make this clearer.
Please mind that many foreign names, when said in Russian, are pronounced with a soft consonant sound. This will be reflected in writing, with the consonant being followed by ь (мягкий знак – soft sign) or the vowels ю, я, ё, е, и. For example, Luke Skywalker is Люк Скайуокер (not лук, the Russian word for an onion). Philadelphia is pronounced Филадельфия (not
Филаделфия with a “hard” second л). In case of names, these are not meaning-changing differences, but they will make you pronunciation much more elegant and less jagged for the native ear.
3. Initial consonant clusters
Russian is notorious for having multiple consonants at the beginning of the word, such as in встреча (meeting), взгляд (glance), or мгновение (an instant). To make matters worse, even the two-consonant clusters in Russian words may be hard for learners to pronounce because their own languages either don’t have similar combinations or treat them differently.
Often, what ends up happening is that the speaker, desperate to get both consonants out, will insert a small vowel sound, an “uh,” between them. So, the name Ксения (Kseniya, Xenia) becomes Kuh-seniya, and психология (psychology) becomes puh-sihologheeya. Again, resist the temptation. It is better to skip the initial consonant altogether than to insert an extra sound, which will confuse the listener. What can help you get there is to put your lips in position for saying the first sound (п in the психология example) but to start saying the second sound right away (с in the case of психология).
I will continue my list in my next post. In the meantime, do you have problems pronouncing any sounds of Russian? How do you get around them?
Please, also see this great post on the same subject.