Unlocking Russian Pronunciation
Become a Master Class Apprentice
Kimberly (Кира) DiMattia, Ph.D.
Кира in 1990
This is what I sounded like after one semester of Russian study as a freshman in college.
Кира in 1992
This is what I sounded like after a summer and semester abroad, 2+ years into studying Russian.
Кира in 1999
This is what I sounded like after 9+ years of study, including grad school, friendships with native Russian speakers and more time abroad.
The above recordings are kind of like "Before" and "After" selfies in audio form. Consider making some yourself! Don't forget to see where you are now as one point on a path towards mastery, no matter how long you've been studying Russian. Too much shame in language learning is debilitating and inappropriate – no one was born with these skills! Love and appreciate yourself exactly where you are, and just keep going.
I am a second language learner, myself. I did not grow up speaking or hearing Russian. I have family who are descendants of Ukrainian immigrants, but I did not speak or hear Ukrainian growing up, either. Consequently, I had to establish a new default mouth position for myself in order to sound Russian when I speak. While my speech is imperfect, I am confident that it is good enough to help you reach great heights on your personal language acquisition journey.
I am very proud that when I had the chance to speak with renowned Russian phoneticist Еле́на Андре́евна Брызгуно́ва herself in 2002 or so, she commented that it seemed that I had indeed acquired the “articulation foundation” (артикуляцио́нная ба́за) of contemporary spoken Russian. It felt like meeting an idol – like I can die happy now! I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my amazing phonetics teachers – especially Ири́на Влади́мировна Одинцо́ва. Please go find her textbooks online and buy them!
I grew up in Corning, NY, the daughter of two teachers. In the late 1980's I attended Oberlin College, where I majored in Russian Language and Area Studies, and then enrolled in graduate school at Bryn Mawr College, where I received my M.A. and Ph.D. in 1997 and 2007 respectively in Russian and Second Language Acquisition. My dissertation, New Russian Frontiers: An Empirical Investigation of Russian Interlanguage at the Superior Level, explored the nature of superior-level non-native Russian speech produced by US citizens who had learned Russian as a second language (although I purposely did not include phonetics as a topic of investigation). The main conclusion? If you really want Russians to embrace you as “their own”, it’s important – in addition to attending to all other facets of the language – to get to know the contexts in which words are deployed. When you get the right word in the right context, people feel that you’re on the same page with them. So read and listen extensively to authentic texts, and when you make notecards to learn new vocabulary, always include a full sentence taken from an authentic context to support your lexical development if you can.
I was fortunate to be granted opportunities to teach Russian for several years at Oberlin College during Winter Term (thank you, Dr. Arlene Forman!), at Bryn Mawr College as a graduate student instructor (thank you, Dr. Elizabeth Cheresh Allen!), and at Swarthmore College as a lecturer (thank you, Dr. Sibelan Forrester!), before finishing my dissertation under the guidance of my brilliant and beloved advisors, Drs. Dan E. Davidson and Richard D. Brecht, in 2007. At that time, wishing to devote all of my professional time to teaching rather than devoting half of it to scholarship, I left the field of Russian and began teaching math and, later, gifted education classes at the high school level. I am still happily installed in this capacity…although I do indulge my old passion from time to time and teach the Russian alphabet to my high school students. I also teach a Master Class in pronunciation via Zoom and am actively engaged in the creation of lots of resources for students – see this section for more about my continuing professional journey with Russian pronunciation.
If there’s one take-home message I have for you, it’s this: if I can do it, so can you. Let’s go!