Russian Pronunciation 101
A comprehensive guide to sounding beautifully Russian
(If you're looking for the class I teach on pronunciation via Zoom, click on Master Class with Kira.)
You want to improve your pronunciation as a student of Russian – and so did I! When I started studying Russian in college, I hated the way I sounded. Since then, a lifetime of personal and professional experience – and lots of instruction from phenomenal Russian phonetics teachers – have helped me to unlock a host of little secrets and nuances that go into creating pronunciation that sounds beautifully Russian. Now I specialize in helping students unlock the same secrets for themselves. Here, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know, from creating a Russian sound-identity to adopting study techniques you can use to take your pronunciation to the next level.
Click on a section below to skip ahead.
1. Do I really need good pronunciation?
Absolutely! There are huge benefits to having good Russian pronunciation – and costs to having bad pronunciation.
Good pronunciation removes barriers to communication.
Many native Russian teachers have confessed to me that they can barely understand some students in class, especially when they speak in sentences. We want to make it easier for native speakers to understand us, and good pronunciation is an essential part of comprehensible speech.
Good pronunciation accelerates our ability to learn Russian.
Many Russian students feel embarrassed and uncomfortable about their pronunciation, which makes them reluctant to speak. Feeling good about our pronunciation is akin to loving what we’re wearing – it gives us confidence and it helps us take the risks we need to take in order to learn Russian efficiently.
Good pronunciation helps us establish relationships with native speakers.
When foreigners speak Russian well, native Russian speakers are often surprised and delighted. They tend to be curious about how we learned to speak so well, and that curiosity opens doors to deeper conversations. In fact, in the process of doing research for my dissertation I found that the better we speak, the more Russians tend to feel like we are “one of them”.
Bad pronunciation is a liability for language students.
In addition to making it harder for us to communicate, bad pronunciation can convey a self-centeredness on the part of language learners. The “ugly/stupid American” is an example of a negative stereotype that most of us in the US do not want to reinforce, but when we don't make an effort to learn how other languages sound, we have to work extra hard to overcome the perception that we are ignorant and invested in staying that way.
Having good pronunciation is more than a goal in itself: it helps us express who we are and it helps us to connect to others, one of the best reasons to study a foreign language.
2. How long does it take to sound Russian?
Most people can make huge progress immediately. Over and over I have seen students make huge gains after they begin to apply the key concepts I teach.
On the other hand, mastering Russian pronunciation is very much a long-haul journey – it's like learning to play a musical instrument or a sport on a professional level. It's not a matter of listening to instructions and then simply executing them; if that were the case, it would be easy to become a world-class musician or a tennis pro. Music, sports and language are all performances, and building the skills that go into high-level performance takes time.
The good news is that people do become pros in all of these domains and it's possible to achieve excellence with hard work and consistent practice. The information in this guide is meant to help you make progress towards your goal with maximum efficiency.
3. What core concepts will help me improve quickly?
If you don’t want to spin your wheels studying pronunciation, it’s important to know three things: what a sound-identity is, what the Russian default mouth position is, and what kind of learner you are.
What is a Russian sound-identity?
When I was teaching Russian at Swarthmore College, I had an encounter with a student that changed everything for me regarding pronunciation. What I learned from my student was that we become subconsciously attached to how we sound in our native language to such an extent that we need to decide to be willing to create a new sound-identity for ourselves in any foreign language we are studying. Many students can – consciously or subconsciously – identify with the following:
“I feel like a fraud trying to sound Russian.”
“Putting on a fake Russian accent is pretentious.”
“I don't sound like that, it's just not me.”
These are normal feelings to have, even if we think good pronunciation is important. The notion of building a separate Russian sound-identity is what can help. Do we “show up” one way with our families but act differently around our friends? Sure, and they are both versions of ourselves; we highlight different aspects of ourselves when we are around different audiences. We need to adopt the view that the same can be true with Russian – we can develop a Russian-sounding version of ourselves. It will feel awkward at the beginning, but it's important to push through the awkward stage so that sounding Russian can start to feel natural.
What is the Russian default mouth position?
The Russian default mouth position is fundamental to authentic-sounding Russian pronunciation. Here are the three keys to achieving it:
The jaw does not open very far, much less than in US English!
The tongue is forward, mushed up against the back of the bottom teeth with the tip at the gum line.
The lips are rounded and protruded so they’re sticking out in front of you.
The jaw, tongue and lips move away from this position as you speak for some sounds, but starting from and returning to this position helps you create the basic shape of the mouth that makes your speech sound Russian. (For detailed info, click here.) Work REALLY carefully to acquire this habit, and everything you say will instantly sound 1000% more Russian. : )
What kind of learner am I?
Which profile best describes you?
I like to analyze things
I naturally pay attention to details
I find “big picture” thinking too vague and inconsistent
I am more likely to disagree with someone’s assertion than to agree
(P.S. If you find your brain saying “it depends on the assertion” – this is your profile!)
I hate analysis
I don’t want to think about what’s happening in my mouth when I speak
I am drawn to the big picture
I learn more “by feel” than by dissecting everything
I only read the first and last bullet points…too much text for me!
In all my years of teaching pronunciation and leading vocal ensembles, I’ve learned that most people identify with one of these profiles.
Profile 1 people are “sharpeners” according to early Gestalt psychologists George Klein and Philip Holzman – they tend to perceive differences and minimize similarities. In my experience, sharpeners are hyper-sensitive to detail and prefer analysis to generalizations. (This is me, btw!) If this is you, look for materials that really drill down and get into the nitty-gritty.
Profile 2 people are “levelers” according to Klein and Holzman – they tend to perceive similarities and minimize differences. In my experience, levelers are aggravated by detail and prefer to learn things holistically rather than by dissecting them. (Since I am a sharpener, I have to adjust my approach when I work with levelers, forgoing analysis in favor of get-in-character and listen-and-repeat-this-with-your-eyes-closed types of activities, with little coaching hints added in here and there.) If this is you, use the materials available to you in a way that works for you. If that means ignoring some of the analysis and relying more on listening and repeating using your own innate ability to imitate sound, then do it.
The best approach, however, is for sharpeners and levelers to intentionally take a leaf from each other’s books. We all need to learn to notice details, developing an ear for discrete units of sound. We also all need to attend to the big picture, developing an ear for prosody, or the “music” of spoken Russian. Most importantly, we all need to develop the patience we need in order to benefit from working in modalities that are not the ones we instinctively prefer.
4. How can I work toward mastery?
Here's my basic recipe for maximum efficiency. It's an iterative process. It's how I worked toward mastery, and it’s how you can walk that same path.
1) Listen to native speech with real curiosity.
Listening to native speech with real curiosity means asking yourself questions. How far does the jaw open? Are the lips spread wide or are they pursed? Is the mouth tense or relaxed? How much air are they using and is it consistent? What could I do to produce that sound? The more questions you ask, the more you will notice and the faster you'll progress.
Speaking a foreign language is really very much like learning to play an instrument. When we are learning to play the violin, it’s not possible to listen to instructions on how to hold the bow and execute them perfectly on the first attempt – we need to experiment, trying one position, observing how it feels, listening for how it sounds, making adjustments, and observing some more. The same goes for pronunciation. You have to get loose, be silly, try stuff, and see what works. And have a lot of patience in the process!
3) Record yourself and listen back.
It's shocking how often we skip this step! The thing is, we do not observe our own performances with much accuracy in real time. The higher the cognitive load, the less space we have for observation. Recording ourselves used to be a regular part of language courses – we had these things called language labs where we would sit down at a console, put a cassette tape master in the left-hand deck, put a blank cassette tape in the right-hand deck, and record ourselves repeating after native speakers. This process would produce a recording where we could hear both the native speaker and ourselves, and if we were smart, we would listen back to see how close we got to the target language, notice what gave us the most trouble, make adjustments, and try again. This lo-fi analog technology got phased out when we moved to digital modalities, but we lost a critical step in the language-learning process – listening to our own performance. Figure out a way to build this step into your workflow. Without it, you are trying to invent something – your own target-like pronunciation – without any data on your prototypes.
4) Experiment some more.
Remember the question-asking thing we did above? Here's another place we need that habit. What is happening with my speech compared to the native speaker's speech? What if I shift my tongue forward or back, what if I make it narrower or wider, what if I try to make my lips look like the native speaker's? What if I use less air here and more air there? You can see how important the imagination becomes in language acquisition.
5) Consult the experts.
At various points in this iterative process, it's good to do a little research and see what the experts say about this consonant or that phonetics topic. Sometimes you will notice something and then have the thrill of learning that it's actually a thing! Other times you will hear that something in your speech is not quite right, and something an expert has to say will point your gaze in the right direction and then all of a sudden you'll see it. You can find information in lots of places, but that's part of the difficulty today – there is so much information available online that it can be time consuming to find the really good stuff. Once you find some gems, bookmark them and tell your friends – you may be able to save them some time and energy.
5. What skills will I build in the acquisition process?
Beyond the willingness to engage in the iterative process of listening, wondering, experimenting, and listening again, you will be building the following skills:
Imitating native speech
Developing new motor habits
Forming auditory memories (sound pictures)
Recalling sound pictures
Acquiring explicit knowledge about how to produce sounds
Implementing knowledge about how to produce sounds
Implementing that knowledge in isolated words, in phrases (chunked language), in sentences that are read, in spontaneous speech
Mastery takes time. How many times did I need to hear a native speaker say the word ма́ма before I could begin to notice how it sounds different from “mama” when I say it in English? How many more times did I need to hear it to be able to accurately recall what it sounded like in my head? We think we should be able to hear something once and remember it indefinitely, but this is totally unrealistic. Many of us are pretty good at mimicking one word or one sound if we close our eyes, but that’s because we don’t need to retrieve it from a memory bank – we just heard it a moment ago and we can use that rapidly-fading experience as a model. So actually, what’s needed is a huge investment of time listening to and repeating native Russian speech while we are paying deliberate attention to what it sounds like instead of what it means because the more brain power we use to process meaning, the less we have available to notice sound. Gradually, we will develop new motor habits, along with an auditory memory of what a sound or word or phrase should sound like, and travel another few steps along the path to mastery.
6. What are the best study techniques?
I have a bunch – try these out!
1) Close your eyes.
When I ask students to close their eyes and imitate a few sounds at a time, they are often able to tap into their innate ability to mimic sound, stunned at how well they do it with a little coaching. It’s interesting that students produce speech that sounds way closer to Russian with their eyes closed than they typically do with their eyes open. I think two things happen when we close our eyes and attempt to mimic sound. First, I think we switch from our analytical faculties to a different mode of some kind, one that’s more holistic, and that can be a good thing. Second, when we close our eyes, we prevent our brain from prioritizing images over sounds, a habit that sometimes works against us in language study. Close your eyes so that you can focus on sound and take full advantage of your own ability to reproduce what you hear.
2) Use flash cards differently.
You are probably used to making flashcards to help you learn the meanings of words, but I’m recommending that you use them in a different way to practice pronunciation. Make some flash cards with words you use a lot. You could put Russian on the front, and make these flash cards one-sided, or you could put definitions and translations on the front and Russian on the back. Include whole phrases if you can, or even sentences. When you cycle through them, focus on your pronunciation. Record yourself and listen back. If you can, get a native speaker to pronounce them for you, and record yourself repeating after the native speaker. Listen back, notice the discrepancies, wonder what you could do differently, experiment, and try it again. With practice, you can replace old motor habits with new ones.
3) Put today's goal on a sticky note.
One mistake we often make is to set too many goals for ourselves. It’s good to focus on one at a time. Choose one goal for the day, write it on a sticky note or at the top of your homework paper, and really try to move the needle in that one area.
4) Use a timer in a creative way.
This technique is useful in combination with a sticky note goal. First, choose your goal. Then set a timer to go off at regular intervals – one minute, three minutes, five minutes – and perform a task while implementing your goal, like maintaining the Russian default mouth position while reading aloud. When the timer goes off, ask yourself whether you’re on target with your goal. I like to use my watch, which vibrates and is easy to reset (and would be great to use during class because it doesn't produce sound), but you can use free online timers if you are working alone. A little timed practice can keep you honest with your goals.
5) Record yourself and listen back intelligently.
You can record yourself reading or speaking Russian and listen back, asking yourself which sounds need the most work. Or you can record yourself repeating after a native speaker, using a video from YouTube and the voice memo app on your phone. Play a few seconds of video, pause it so you can repeat what the native speaker said, and then play a few seconds more. When you’re done, listen back intelligently, trying to discern where your pronunciation differs from the native speaker’s. Use all your powers of observation when listening, not going through the motions but taking full agency. Engage your imagination, asking yourself what could help and allowing your own natural wisdom to arise. I think we often don’t realize how passive we are when we’re doing homework, even though we are supposed to be learning something. You will be surprised at the progress you can make when you put yourself fully in the driver’s seat.
6) Use shadowing.
Linguist Alexander Arguelles came up with this very cool technique: you listen to a recording of a native speaker (maybe a YouTube video) and repeat what you hear in real time, with as little delay as possible, like interpreters do. Instead of pausing recordings of native speech while you repeat what is being said, you let the recording roll while you speak: the shadowing technique results in two simultaneous streams of speech, with yours coming slightly after that of the native speaker. This technique helps you hear and absorb the “music” of the language you’re studying, which is known as prosody (PRAWS-uh-dee) (prose + melody).
7) Practice shifting stress from one syllable to another.
If you feel confused about stress, wondering if you’re actually stressing the syllable that has the stress mark on it, try shifting the stress to a different syllable. Hearing and feeling the contrast can help you develop your own sensitivity to emphasis in words, which is a critical feature in Russian. This strategy was recommended by one of my Master Class students – thanks, Perry!
8) “Imagine sounding Russian. Now go.”
One of my colleagues, the lovely Amy Adams at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, brought me this technique when she served as a Master Class Apprentice. She recommends that you pause, before speaking in class or elsewhere, imagine yourself sounding Russian, and then speak. She is coaching us to practice being intentional before we start speaking, and I think she has really hit the nail on the head. Often in class I observe students speaking reflexively, feeling the pressure to “get it right” quickly so that the teacher is happy and other students are not waiting, but they fail to incorporate the instruction I’ve just given them without realizing it. It’s like suddenly they’re in a totally different mode and they can’t access the instruction they have just processed and understood. But if I ask students to pause and imagine sounding Russian first, they often have much better pronunciation and are able to implement the instruction I’ve provided. Thanks to Amy for this gem!
9) Be your own gatekeeper.
I’ve hinted at this strategy in the techniques above, but it’s so important that I’ll spell it out again here. If you want to improve your pronunciation, you must become your own gatekeeper. What I mean is that you need to develop the ability to control and monitor your own speech, pausing to organize your jaw, tongue and lips before you pronounce difficult sounds and words when necessary and expending the mental and physical energy it takes to implement new vocal habits with fidelity rather than slipping back into the more comfortable habits of your native language (all while you recall vocabulary, calculate all the grammatical endings you’ll need, and attend to your relationship with your speaking companion…!) Obviously, controlling and monitoring your speech is difficult to do while the cognitive load is high, and it’s pretty darn high whenever we’re speaking Russian, no matter where we are on the path to acquisition. But it's a skill you can cultivate by being intentional about it. You can control what comes out of your mouth, and if you want really good pronunciation, you will need a high degree of control to prevent fossilization. (Look it up, it’s a thing!) Fortunately, if you become your own gatekeeper, you can make great strides towards mastery whether you are a beginner or not.
7. What is the biggest mistake people make?
The biggest mistake most people make when it comes to learning is that they are inconsistent about it. There are lots of reasons we become inconsistent. Sometimes we let laziness get the better of us. Sometimes the stressors of life get overwhelming. Sometimes we feel disappointed by a lack of progress, or by small inconsistencies that creep into our practice routine, and we become avoidant or give up altogether. If you struggle with perfectionism, don't let perfectionism rob you of the progress you are capable of making. To cultivate consistency, all of us need to forgive ourselves for being imperfect when we fail, and we need to get back on the horse when conditions allow.
8. Where should I start?
If you want to make a huge difference in your pronunciation right away, here are the most important steps to take.
Step 1: Get in the right headspace.
You need to embrace the idea that you need to create a new sound-identity for yourself, a version of you who sounds Russian. Expect it to feel awkward at the beginning and simply keep at it, pushing through the discomfort. A month from now you will be a month older. What do you want to be true at that time? Do you want to have the same pronunciation you have now, or do you want to have made significant improvements? Do you want to feel as awkward as you do now, or do you want speaking Russian to feel more natural? All of this is in your hands! Jump in, commit to intelligent practice, and start hearing a real difference in your pronunciation.
Step 2: Reset your default mouth position.
The Russian default mouth position is the foundation of everything. Without it, nothing you say will sound Russian, but as soon as you start to use it, everything will sound instantly more Russian. If you have been following lots of advice about how to pronounce Russian but it still isn’t working, you probably haven’t acquired the default mouth position. Prepare to be amazed – I was! Find the basics here.
Step 3: Trust your ears, not your eyes.
You already have an innate ability to mimic sound, so close your eyes and take advantage of it. Closing your eyes will help you prioritize sound over sight and let go of your predisposition to pronounce words as they are spelled. Spelling is misleading! Tell your brain that the written word is not meant for us to decode it letter-by-letter; it’s only meant to remind us which word is needed, and that we need to rely on our ear to get it right.
Step 4: Develop a consistent routine where you listen to native speakers, record yourself, and listen back.
The key to mastery is not how hard you try, but how consistent you are about giving intelligent effort. Intelligent effort is the opposite of mindless repetition! It's using your imagination to think about what could be helpful next. It’s paying keen attention and observing both small details and the big picture. Carve out a regular time to study and practice pronunciation. Commit to listening to native speech with real curiosity, openly wondering what you could do to produce those sounds, experimenting, listening back to yourself, consulting the experts, and wondering some more. I worked toward mastery using this iterative process, and you can, too.
All the other tips on this page will help you, but if you are ready to dig in, the steps above are the place to start. Best wishes on your journey! <3 Kira