Speak Russian без акцента in just one month!!(?) Posted by Rob 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.