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Speak Russian без акцента in just one month!!(?) Posted by on Jul 25, 2012 in General reference article, language, Russian for beginners, Russian phonetics

Okay, maybe it’s not actually possible for a student of Russian to speak «без акцента» (“without a foreign accent”) in just a month — heck, I started studying the language in 1989 and I still haven’t completely gotten rid of my US-English акцент! But with the caveat that my Russian pronunciation is far from native, I can certainly offer some “accent reduction” tips that I’ve found to be helpful.

First, just so people have a rough idea of what kind of accent I have in Russian, I’ve prepared a 30-second audio clip of me reading the opening sentences from a чеченская сказка в русском переводе (“a Chechen fairytale in Russian translation”) that I found in an old college textbook. In fact, I particularly like this story because long before I read it in college, I had read the same story (in English) as a little boy in Turkey, where the character “Nesart” is known as “Nasreddin Hodja.”

Apart from the word харчевня (“rustic, old-fashioned tavern”), the vocabulary should be accessible for intermediate learners, and I’ve added Russian and English субтитры (“onscreen titles”) to the audio so you can read along.

I recorded this in two takes (what you hear is “take two”), with no prior репетиции (“rehearsals”) — I probably could’ve improved my pronunciation of some sounds by rehearsing a little more, but I wanted to give you a fair idea of what my “natural accent” in Russian sounds like!

So, now that you’re fairly warned, let’s get to some “practical tips.”

Some Problematic Letters

One of the biggest issues with Russian pronunciation is the hard/soft consonant distinction, since most Russian consonant letters actually occur in two distinct sound-variants. But before we get to that, let’s talk about a few letters in Russian that tend to be “inherently difficult” for many English speakers:

Rolling the hard [р] as in рыба (“fish”)

For the first two decades of my life, I was totally unable to “roll my R’s” — in fact, some of my friends (and my younger sister) would sometimes tease me about this: “R-r-r-r-obert, r-r-r-repeat: ‘R-r-r-ruffles have r-r-r-ridges‘!” I finally learned to do it in my third year of college, following some practical advice that a girl in my karate club had learned from her clarinet instructor: just keep saying Teddy, Eddy, Freddy or Daddy dreaded the dreidel over and over! The idea is that the repeated “D” sounds will “trick your tongue” into rolling the “R”. It took a couple months of practice, but eventually it worked, and Fr-r-r-r-r-r-reddy came rolling gloriously out!

Saying the [х] in хорошо without choking

The letter х is often transliterated as “kh” in English (e.g., Хрущёв –> “Khrushchev”), and perhaps for this reason, English speakers often “overdo” the k-sound while trying to say х, so that it sounds unpleasantly like they’re trying to “hawk up” a wad of phlegm. In fact, the х is quite “dry” sounding, and my general recommendation is that you try to do an impression of Darth Vader’s respirator! Alternatively, if you’ve ever studied Spanish, the Russian х is fairly close to the j in jalapeño or José.

That strange vowel [ы]

Early in my Russian career, I would almost invariably pronounce ты (for example) as something like English toy, or sometimes like tee — I really had trouble getting that ы vowel right, or even “close enough for government work”! If you have this trouble, here’s my suggestion. You may know that the English “long A” as in fate” can be represented with эй, that the “long I” as in sigh can be spelled ай, and that “oy” as in coin can be spelled ой. Following this pattern, it may help you to think of ы as sorta/kinda a “diphthong” of əй — in other words, the “schwa” vowel like the “o” in women, followed by й. (Strictly speaking, ы is a “pure” vowel, not a diphthong at all, but pretending that it’s equal to əй may help you learn the sound.)

Don’t “explode” too much!

Certain English consonants — particularly P, B, T, and D, but also hard-G and K — are known to linguists as “plosives,” and are also heavily “aspirated.” Basically, this means that English speakers push out quite a lot of air when we say these sounds. The corresponding Russian consonants, however, are quite “non-aspirated”, meaning that you should release as little air as possible. A time-honored practice method is to hold a lit candle in front of your mouth while saying the Russian consonants, and trying not to disturb the flame. If the flame moves a lot when you say the first letter in поёт (“he/she sings”), then your pronunciation of the п is probably “too English.” [Thanks to sharp-eyed commenters Chris and Ryan for pointing out that I had originally confused “plosive” and “aspirated” in the above paragraph, which has now been corrected! -RM]

Weird Letter Combinations

Words like взгляд (“glance; gaze; viewpoint”) and мстить (“to avenge; to take revenge”) can be intimidating for English speakers, because our native language doesn’t have any words beginning with the strings vzgl- or mst-. But if you stop to think about it, the -mst- sequence occurs in the middle of a common word that every child knows: hamster (хомяк). And -mst- is also heard in phrases like “I was tired from standing so long.” Similarly, it’s not that hard to think of English phrases with a -vzgl- sound sequence: for example, “The sequined gloves glittered.”

And Finally, Those Damned Soft Consonants!

Having shared all those simple practical “tricks,” let me say this about the bigger issue of hard and soft consonants: It ain’t easy, and will give you headaches for a long time. Still, there are two observations I can make.

I really didn’t “get” soft consonants at all during my first two years of college Russian, even after listening to lots of audiotapes (and getting straight A’s in my grammar classes). And most of my classmates had the same problem. But in 3rd-year Russian, a native speaker named Svetlana was determined to fix our problem. She would drill us with ла-ла-ла (hard) and ля-ля-ля (soft), followed by мо-мо-мо, мё-мё-мё, and ту-ту-ту, тю-тю-тю, etc.

And that repeated drilling while poor Svetlana patiently indicated the numbered mouth positions actually “turned the light on” for me, and in less than a month I did make huge progress towards speaking без акцента.

Okay, I still had an accent, but it was much more progress than I’d made in the previous two years! And the key was understanding that English consonants like L, D, T, N, and others tend to be “alveolar,” meaning the tip of the tongue hits between 4 and 5 in the diagram above. But their Russian equivalents are — when hard — much more “dental”, hitting the teeth between 3 and 4. However, the soft versions of these consonants are very “palatalized” — the tongue hits somewhere between 6 and 7, behind the point of contact in English.

Got that? To say the hard [л] in ла-ла-ла, the tip of your tongue should be more or less against the back of your upper teeth (3-4 in the diagram), but for the soft [л] in ля-ля-ля, the tip of your tongue is touching in the 6-7 position. But English “L” is nearer to 4-5.

And if you’re still confused about soft/hard consonants, let me direct you to this YouTube video — it’s Carol Channing singing “Jazz Baby” from Thoroughly Modern Millie:

Channing is beloved by comedians because it’s so easy to do a bad-but-recognizable impression of her. And one of the things that makes her voice so distinctive and easy to imitate is that Ms. Channing “softens up her consonants” all over the freakin’ place. Sometimes she even softens consonants that a Russian wouldn’t soften — like, she’ll say “got” as something close to гят.

CAUTION: I do not claim that learning to do a perfect Carol Channing impression will automatically reduce your accent in Russian (although you may be able to hire yourself out for wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs) — after all, Channing isn’t Russian, but for some strange reason she happens to articulate certain consonant sounds in a soft, palatalized, “Russian-y” way. (Maybe that’s how they talk on her home planet, somewhere in the Tau Ceti system…)

But, seriously, if you’re having trouble with the “general concept” of soft consonant sounds, there’s no harm in going to YouTube and listening for a few minutes as Channing spoofs her legendary Hello Dolly role with a Muppet snake named “Sammy” (voiced here by Jim Henson himself):

The “softened” way she sings the “so” in “you’re so clammy” really reminds me of the -сё- in несёт, just to point out one example.

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Comments:

  1. Chris:

    This is a great post, but I’d like to point out that the p, b, t, d, g, and k are still plosives in other languages, English just tends to aspirate them while other languages (like Russian) don’t.

  2. Ryan:

    Russian /p t k/ are just as plosive as the English ones, or else they’d be /f s x/. The word you’re looking for is *aspirated*. English has aspirated and voiceless (sometimes called tense and lax) consonants, though linguists often call them voiced and voiceless. However, some languages, e.g. Russian, have ‘real’ voiced consonants, where the vocal folds start vibrating well before you open the closure formed by your lips/tongue.

  3. David Roberts:

    Ооооочень полезная статья! One thing you could add, which none of the books seem to cover – pronunciation of unstressed -ой, a frequent ending in feminine adjectives, as in: Он слывёт тёмной лошадью (he is considered to be a dark horse). The numbered diagram is very useful. Where I find hard/soft most difficult is when the word ends in a consonant, with or without -b. I think it’s as much a question of learning to detect the difference by ear. I’ve listened to the song:
    Ой мороз мороз, не морозь меня repeatedly, and I can just about detect a difference between мороз (frost) and морозь (freeze, imperative), but if I heard one in isolation I don’t honestly think I’d know which it was. Угол and уголь (corner and coal) is another tricky pair. I remember which is which by noting that the л retains its softness in углерод (carbon).

    As it happens I was reading about English dialects yesterday. In the Liverpool dialect, L is apparently very “dark”. I think “dark” has a similar meaning to “hard” in phonology-speak, so I guess that means tongue nearer to 3 than to 4 in the diagram.

    Question to native Russian speakers – when you hear non-natives speaking your language, how easily can you identify their nationalities? Can you tell the difference between Americans and Brits?

  4. Rob McGee:

    Russian /p t k/ are just as plosive as the English ones, or else they’d be /f s x/. The word you’re looking for is *aspirated*.

    Thanks, Ryan! Yes, you’re right — there’s a big difference between “plosive” and “aspirated.” I’m not quite sure how I’d rewrite that paragraph, though, to make it as clear as possible for non-linguists. (If you can help me come up with a better wording, I’ll rewrite the paragraph and give you credit!)

    P.S. I should add that, as far as I know, the “voiced/voiceless” distinction also exists in English, and is separate from “plosive” and “aspirated.”

    So, the English [b] as in “boy” is plosive, voiced, and aspirated, while the Russian [б] as in бог is plosive, voiced, and unaspirated; and the English [p] as in “pit” is plosive, voiceless, and aspirated, while the Russian [п] as in путь is plosive, voiceless, and unaspirated; and finally the English [f] as in “for” is non-plosive, voiceless, and aspirated, but the Russian [ф] as in фокус is non-plosive, voiceless, and unaspirated (or at least, less strongly aspirated than the English [f]).

  5. Rob:

    pronunciation of unstressed -ой, a frequent ending in feminine adjectives, as in: Он слывёт тёмной лошадью

    Cool, слыть is a new word for me!

    (I would’ve said Он считается [чем/кем]…, which is basically equivalent: “to be considered to be; to be regarded as, etc.”)

    But regarding pronunciation, as far as I know, most native Russians would consider тёмной (fem. inst. sg.) to be a “perfect and non-distinguishable homonym” for тёмный (masc. nom. sg.), even in the most careful speech.

    And in rapid, casual speech, I can promise you that both of these can be “near-but-not-quite-homonyms” for тёмные or тёмное or even тёмную, and other inflected forms with non-stressed vowel endings.

  6. John:

    There is yet another actor who can help with Russian (or other Slavic) pronunciation: Sean Connery.

    Connery doesn’t say…

    “Good evening, Miss Moneypenny”

    He says…

    “Good evening, Miш Moneypenny”

    Or…

    “Name’ш Bond, Jameж Bond”

    During and just after WWII there were a lot of Poles (my father among them) in Scotland. Connery, apparently, was often mistaken for one of them because of his speech.

    For people struggling with Polish, I’ve often told them to do a Sean Connery impression. Seems to help.

  7. Delia:

    A Very useful article! Great job! Молодец!! My comment on the Ы sound. I have a much easier way iof explaining the pronunciation of it and it has worked fine so far. I ask my students to read two English words that I have on the board in front of them: live and leave. I ask them to pronounce both words several times and ask if they hear the difference of the vowels and whether they can fell that their organs of articulation work differently. They always say “yes”. Then I say that the long vowel i: in the word “leave” is very much the Russian И and the short i in “live” is the Russian Ы. Try saying live, give, ты, мы. See how similar they are?

  8. Delia:

    A couple of typos in my previous message:
    …. Whether my students can FEEL the difference in the articulation

  9. David Roberts:

    Rob, glad you liked слыть! It is number 9953 in my dictionary of the 10000 most used Russian words. In our русский кружок “Журавли” recently we did a vocab. exercise on the final 2 pages, so that’s how I knew it and took this opportunity to practice using it.

    Number 10000 is Яарый (fervent, furious, raging, rabid): например, “мы яарые поклонники
    Русского Блога”

    Delia, I get the impression that for non-native english speakers the short i sound as in bit, give etc is usually one of the most difficult. It doesn’t seem to be used much in other languages. To us “it” sounds nothing like “eat”, live (= be alive) and live (as in a live show) sound nothing like leave. So when teaching english to Russian speakers would you advise them to use the ы sound for the i in it? I’ve always wondered, why can’t you have words beginning with ы?

  10. yelena:

    Fantastic post, Rob! It was great to finally hear your voice and the Channing videos were unexpected, but awesome 🙂 From the perspective of a Russian speaker trying to speak English as accent-free as possible, I can say that the “ы” sound takes some practice to get rid of. Also, many Russians I know that live in the US continue to soften consonants in English words in a seemingly random way and with funny results (like “bla-bla-bla” getting pronounced as бля-бля-бля).

  11. Stas:

    David, the expression is «слыть тёмной лошадкой», but not «лошадью». And correct spelling is ярый.

    To answer your question about British-American accent to the Russian native speaker, if the Russian person doesn’t speak English then mostly like he or she won’t hear any difference between British and American accents. After living for 3-4 years in the English language environment Russian native speaker will just start to pick difference between major English accents. Though, British, Scottish, Irish and Australian would still sound the same. It will take another 5-6 years for the Russian native speaker to start distinguishing between New-York and, say, Texan accents, and all others.

  12. Mike:

    Interesting discussion! I always laugh when people tell me they could never learn Russian because of the difficult alphabet. Hah, the alphabet is the easiest part!

    I studied Russian two years without really challenging my lazy English mouth, face, and tongue muscles. Then I attended Indiana University’s Russian Institute (summer 1971) and made my native Russian teachers cringe if not want to toss me out the window. They quickly made me aware of my shortcomings and eventually corrected a few problems — my face muscles ached for weeks until I slipped back into my lazy American speech.

    The sounds I find the most difficult are palatalized ‘r’ in final position and ж ш after a syllable with a palatalized consonant/vowel combination. For example, I have no trouble with шить but stumble over лишь (which might come out as лышь or лищ with a soft ‘sh’ sound. And I still can’t pronounce my Russian nickname Миша correctly except in deliberate speech.

    On the subject of trilled ‘r’ …. Recently I found an old textbook at a used book sale that actually counted the number of vibrations. From Mariana Poltoratzky and Michael Zarechnak, Русский Язык Первая Книга, 1960, pp. 17-18:

    “The number of vibrations differs according to the position of the sound in the phonetic stream: in initial position it has one or two vibrations, medially it has one, and in final position it has three or four: [list of examples]”

    From the same book:

    pp. 40: Most Frequent Mistakes Made by American Students in Pronouncing Russian:

    “1. Those which make it difficult or impossible for a Russian to understand what the American student wishes to say
    a) Absence of Palatalization
    b) Wrong Word Stress
    c) Weakening of Articulation (fortis/lenis, tense/lax) (e.g., weak ‘d’ or ‘t’ before unstressed vowel will be heard by Russian as ‘r’: падает could be heard as парает)
    d) ‘Mechanical’ Mistakes (e.g., confusing Russian ‘s’ letter for English ‘c’, inserting syllables such as a schwa between the ‘d’ and ‘v’ in два, dropping of sounds such as the ‘l’ in волк)

    2. Those which are perceived by a native Russian listener as a ‘foreign accent,’ but which do not hinder the communication function
    a) Failure to devoice consonants
    b) Lengthening of vowels
    c) Misplacement of phrase accent
    d) Aspiration after stops
    e) Incorrect intonation in sentence”

    Anyone know of a better or more complete list?

  13. Delia Valente:

    David:

    I don’t know why there are no words in Russian starting with Ы, I should do some research. About teaching English to Russian speakers: yes, the length of vowels is one of those things that’s hard to teach. I have my tricks to teach LEAVE, reCEIVE, beLIEVE with long i: sound. As far as i in LIVE, GIVE, BIG, I don’t usually compare it to Ы, I just ask them to exhale and relax their mouth cavity.
    All the languages are fun! They are fun to study, to teach and to talk about!! 🙂

  14. Mike:

    re. why not ы at the beginning of words.

    I think it’s just a spelling convention. For the most part ы and и function as the same sound though phonetically they are different. The modern letter и stands for three different letters which now have roughly the same sound: и, i, and v. Considering that ы is the combination of the letters ъ and и (hence еры, it makes sense that it would appear after a hard consonant. This can be seen in prefixed forms of играть where you get проиграть but сыграть.

  15. Mike:

    … and the reason you have жить, шить and говоришь where you might expect жыть, шыть and говориш: ancient spelling remnants from Old Russian when ж and ш were soft consonants.

  16. David:

    Trilled “r” – fascinating about the number of vibrations. In Spanish rr is trilled more than single r, so they can distinguish between word pairs like pero (but) and perro (dog). But I’ve never come across any information about number of trills.

  17. Sarah:

    So I know it’s an old post, but I reread it from time to time because it’s very informative. I wanted to add this link for anyone who is trying to train their ears (or tongues). http://listen2russian.com/lesson08/index.html They have audio of native speakers saying, slowly, words with and without the soft sign. The difference is very noticeable. They also give the trick of “holding the tip of your tongue at the join between your front bottom teeth and your bottom gum. Then use the middle of your tongue to say the syllable that contains the soft-sign. As you pronounce this syllable you should notice the middle of your tongue doing the work by rising towards the hard palate (the top of your mouth). The result should be a very soft [y] sound conjoined with the consonant.” It forces your tongue to do what the picture shows.