Russian Language Blog

Take Your Pronunciation to the Next Level – Part I Posted by on Jul 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

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, 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.

мелмель (chalk vs a shallow)

братбрать (brother vs to take)

матмать (checkmate or Russian swearwords vs mother)

селсель (he/I/you (male) sat down vs mudslide)

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.

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Anya:

    I often have trouble making my “ш” ‘hard’ enough, and I sometimes have trouble with the making the vowel “у” full enough. I get it right most times, it’s just in certain combinations that I have trouble. My Russian friends poke fun at me when I say the word “шучу.” “Shew-cyewwww” they mock me. Haha. 🙂 The funniest thing is that I can actually hear my own accent, I just can’t get the sounds to come out right.

    I grew up in a Russian-speaking country, and Russian is my second language from age 8. I’m almost 30 now, but I still have trouble with these two sounds. Any tips appreciated. 🙂

  2. David:

    i don’t think this is very Mac friendly, I’ve not been able to hear anything. But it’s a great post so I’ll persevere. I’ve never really grasped the hard/soft thing so my ear can’t tell me which is a corner and which is coal, which is obscenity and which is mother….But I’m not 100% convinced that all Russian ears always agree. I’ve seen “Liverpool” written in Cyrillic in Russian newspapers both with and without a terminal myagki znak. I also find the difference between и and ьl – for example, whow would you write “City” (as in Manchester City) in Cyrillic – with 2 и’s or 2 ьl’s? (Incidentally, in Manchester dialect the t of City is replaced by a glottal stop – do you support Ci’y or Uni’ed?

  3. Maria:

    I’m sorry to hear that! Have you tried a different browser? Worst case scenario, I think you can download the audio as an mp3 to your machine.
    ы is not usually used to transliterate foreign words, unless they come from a language that has an ы sound (e.g., Кыргызстан). So, city is definitely сити.
    As for the transliteration of foreign towns, they normally have either a soft or a hard consonant at the end, but it should not oscillate between the two depending on the speaker. I would say UK English and French names normally will end in a soft consonant, like Ливерпуль or Брюссель (yes, I know it’s Belgian and not French). US English names, as later borrowings, may sometimes have a hard sound at the end, like Нэшвил (although Нэшвиль is, apparently, also acceptable, although I would never say it that way).
    As for Russian newspapers… I suppose that’s how we ended up with Эштон Катчер and Сандра Баллок – with people writing things down the way they think they should sound.

  4. Jennifer:

    By far the most difficult letter for me to pronounce is ы. I just pronounce it like tee when I am trying to say ты, and I pronounce it like “bwil”, when I say был. I have a friend from France tell me a story about how they used to pretend that they couldn’t say “th” so that the professor would say “bath-th-th-room”, very exaggeratedly, and then all the students would laugh at the professor. So as French people feel weird saying “th”, it seems so weird to me to say “был” properly. And I can’t really get a handle on what exactly is the sound of that letter, because it seems different depending on what consonant it follows. It seems like there might be a pattern:
    а – я
    э – е
    о – ё
    у – ю
    …и – ы?
    so maybe it’s sound is essentially “yee”?
    I don’t know.

  5. Maria:

    Hi Jennifer,
    Thanks for your comment. I am actually going to talk about ы in my next post. The short answer is that the last pair in your list is different from the first 4 in that the second vowel in the first 4 pairs is й + the first vowel. ы is not й+и. It is a separate sound (well, there is actually disagreement as to whether it is a separate phoneme or an allophone (variant) of и). I will cover it in greater detail next week. Stay tuned!

  6. fatima:

    I found this website that has pronunciation courses for russian plus phonetic transcription.