Teaching Russian Pronunciation 101
A comprehensive guide to helping students sound beautifully Russian
Most of the Russian teachers I know believe that pronunciation is important. We want to do it justice in our classes, but instructional time is so short that we rarely feel we have enough time to cover more than just the basics.
Teaching pronunciation is also an art unto itself. It's an area of growth for many of us, and we can't imagine where we’d find the time and energy we'd need in order to learn how to do it better. If we are native speakers, we may not know exactly what we are doing when we are speaking, let alone what to say to get students to sound more Russian. And if we are not native speakers, we probably feel insecure about our own pronunciation and shy away from it for that reason.
As a result, many of us feel that our students are not receiving the kind of instruction we’d like to give them in this area. We know that a lot of our students have poor pronunciation and we regret that they leave our classes without more skill.
Click on a section below to skip ahead.
I want to help us change this! I believe it’s possible, and I believe that facilitating the acquisition of target-like pronunciation will bring us all kinds of other benefits: students who are more confident, who are more willing to take risks, who have better comprehension and more advanced speaking skills – and who find class to be so much fun that they come back year after year.
I am in the process of designing materials that educate students on Russian pronunciation while simultaneously supporting the development of your skills as their teacher.
If you are ready to jump in, you can click on one of the topics in this guide to skip to that section, or you can explore the other materials on this site. I have a video library and a private podcast that could help you teach students how to pronounce individual sounds. I have a video course and book as well as a master class that could help you teach phonetics in general. I am currently creating a series of short videos for teachers (1-3 min) designed to be assigned for homework as a flipped classroom resource or shown in Russian language classes to teach the Russian default mouth position, key phonetics topics, and intonation. I will do the teaching, I'll ask native speakers to provide the practice, and you can gradually take the reins to the degree that you want while getting the full benefit of beautiful results from students in class, fingers crossed! (If you would be interested in piloting the in-class videos, let me know.) You can read a little about my own professional experience teaching pronunciation below. You can download this guide to read when you have more time: it contains all the information on this webpage. Finally, please email me at email@example.com with questions, thoughts, & ideas – I’d love to hear from you! <3 Kira
A little about my professional experience
When I was writing my dissertation, I completely avoided the topic of pronunciation. I had chosen to study the speech of second language learners of Russian from the US who had reached the Superior level on the ACTFL scale: I wanted to find out what our students had already mastered and what territory they had yet to conquer so that we in the field would know how to invest in their ongoing development (see the abstract here).
Although I loved studying pronunciation (frustrating though it was, at various points in my language-learning journey!) pronunciation felt too amorphous and difficult to describe, let alone diagnose and evaluate. So I confined my conclusions to word choice, aspect, case, sociolinguistic competence, ellipsis, agreement, parts of speech, word formation, idioms, and number and gender agreement. (Spoiler alert: at the Superior level, it’s word choice that makes the real difference. According to educated native speaker experts, most second language learners at that level have all the basics in place, but when they deploy exactly the right word in exactly the right context – with a nuanced understanding of connotation and cultural referents – native speakers feel they can embrace us as one of their own.)
Pronunciation was, however, something I was passionate about teaching. As a lecturer at Swarthmore College (2001-2007), I created a course in Russian phonetics available to all students – whether or not they studied Russian – designed to teach students how to pronounce Russian fluently. That half-credit course served as a laboratory where I could experiment with different techniques and develop my personal approach.
In 2007 I left academia to teach math at the high school level and later transitioned to teaching gifted education classes – that’s my primary occupation now. But in the back of my mind, the idea of creating resources for teaching Russian pronunciation had been percolating, and in 2019 I published Unlocking Russian Pronunciation: A Supplementary Multimedia Mini-Course in Phonetics Based on Famous Russian Songs. When the pandemic hit in 2020, everyone jumped on Zoom as a way to connect, and it suddenly became possible to make a master class in Russian pronunciation available to students everywhere.
Master Class has become my second laboratory. I don’t think I can put into words everything I’ve learned so far from working with students (and teachers!) in this five-week course over the past several years, but I will try in the sections that follow. I'm also really excited about the video series I mentioned above, designed to be shown in Russian language classes. I plan to begin releasing videos in the fall of 2023; meanwhile, I hope that you’ll find some ideas and inspiration below.
1. How important is pronunciation?
It’s super important, of course! There are huge benefits for non-native speakers of Russian who have good pronunciation – and costs for those with bad pronunciation.
Many Russian teachers see the following as some of the most compelling benefits:
Good pronunciation removes barriers to communication.
Good pronunciation accelerates learning by creating confident speakers who are willing to take risks.
Students with good pronunciation enjoy studying Russian and want to continue their studies year after year, which is especially important in small departments.
Those students who achieve excellent pronunciation will enjoy an easy connection with native speakers who are curious about how they learned to speak so well.
What we don’t fully articulate to ourselves are the costs of failing to support the development of good pronunciation in our students. How often do we ask students to repeat what they said, only to hear the same unintelligible thing two or three more times? How often do we pretend to understand our students because we don’t want to discourage them? Our students remain unheard and we feel guilty about compromising our relationships with dishonesty.
Bad pronunciation can also communicate to native speakers 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 fail to learn to speak other languages with good pronunciation, we have to work extra hard to overcome the perception that we are ignorant and invested in staying that way.
Ultimately, teaching pronunciation is part of our responsibility. Language is a vehicle for connection that has a specific form, and if we neglect to teach a facet of a language, we are failing to give our students their best chance of using that form to connect with others.
2. How can I motivate my students to care about pronunciation?
While some students are naturally inclined to care about pronunciation, others are not. It’s important to communicate on the very first day of class that pronunciation matters. It can help to find a way to talk explicitly about the benefits of having good pronunciation and the costs of not having it (see above). But probably the best way to motivate students to care about pronunciation is to make it fun and to give them success on day one. We all have a million priorities for the first day of class, and pronunciation should be one of them!
Here’s a fun way to begin. When you teach your first words, have your students repeat after you. Then say the same words with terrible pronunciation and a comical expression, and have them mimic you while they laugh. Then say the same words again with beautiful pronunciation and have them repeat after you. I guarantee they will do it better and they will have smiles on their faces because you issued a playful challenge. Some teachers object to the idea of ever pronouncing words incorrectly or to having students do so, but I have found it to be a fantastic technique for the first day of class. It calls attention to the importance of pronunciation AND it gets students laughing, which loosens them up and makes them more willing to play and take risks. It’s also helpful because students have no idea which details you want them to pay attention to, and highlighting pronunciation prompts students to attend to it.
You can double your investment by taking a few moments to stop and focus right away on a few sounds before moving on to the next words and phrases you teach. Here are some examples (don't be alarmed if you are unfamiliar with the ideas below! You can learn these things – I can teach you!)
Exaggerate stressed vs unstressed syllables, really drawing out the stressed syllables and completely minimizing and mumbling the unstressed ones
Focus on the strong “y” sound in the pronoun «я», pushing lots of air through the narrow opening we make at the beginning of the word – which is much narrower than the US English “y” sound in “yes”
Focus on the soft «т» in «университе́т» by pausing and pronouncing just that sound, again pushing lots of air through a small opening to create the “hiss” that we hear with soft «т»
Take a few volunteers («Кто хо́чет?» while raising your own hand, showing them what you want them to do). The key is to be willing to have individual students repeat after you three or four times, pressing them to continue to try to achieve the sound you’re after. They will be able to replicate many sounds with some real attention and effort, but it’s unlikely that they will succeed after only one or two repetitions and minimal effort. We want to make these moments productive rather than an empty nod to pronunciation with no real results.
Side note about calling on students. I usually work with only a few students at first – the shyer students will get the idea and also strive to pronounce things correctly. Later in the lesson I call on the quiet ones without waiting for them to raise their hand, after they’ve had time to watch and listen to others. It’s hard as a teacher to call on people who are avoiding eye contact, but make sure you call on everyone several times by the end of every class. Quiet students are used to flying under the radar, and it’s important to demand that they show up – it means they are as important to us as everyone else is.
With the techniques above, you have communicated in just a few seconds that pronunciation is important, that your students can be successful at it, and that you can all laugh together while you learn. You have just cultivated a demanding yet playful environment where you can build success in a way that students will find naturally motivating.
3. What qualities will my students need and how can I cultivate them?
Pronunciation is a performance. We are the instrument, and when we are learning how to play an instrument, we need to experiment: we try something, observe the results, and make adjustments. Consequently, when it comes to learning pronunciation, students benefit from a willingness to play, take risks, and tolerate failure.
I use several techniques to cultivate an energetic and playful learning posture in students. Most importantly, I tell them explicitly how they can please me. If I’m teaching in an immersion environment, I will say in Russian while writing translations of key words on the board: «Как вы ду́маете, я хочу́, что́бы бы́ли то́лько пра́вильные отве́ты? Нет! Хочу́, что́бы бы́ли но́вые иде́и, озаре́ния!» «Я хочу́, что́бы никогда́ не́ было оши́бок? Нет! Хочу́, что́бы вы рискова́ли!» And I show them that I want amplified responses because amplification helps me understand students and it also energizes them. I usually teach via Zoom these days, so I want huge head nods and answers that are clear and loud, and I demonstrate all of these things myself. Showing and telling students explicitly how they can please me a good example of psychological priming, which I find myself using constantly in any class I teach, whether it’s Russian pronunciation or gifted education. All audiences appreciate knowing not only what you want, but that you will take a strong lead in getting it from all members of the group.
I use several other strategies when I engage with students. I cultivate curiosity by asking them questions: «Как пра́вильно? Так или так? Почему́?» Sometimes I ask students to use deductive reasoning (I give them the rule and they use it to produce correct speech) but I also use inductive reasoning (I give them several correct examples, underlining the feature I want them to focus on, and they give me the rule or other correct examples). I use games and challenges to motivate students and make class fun for my students and for me – we are much better teachers when we’re enjoying ourselves.
And I let my students make me laugh. Beginning language students especially are stripped of all of their usual tools for expressing themselves – they have no way of using language to “dress up” and present as cool or hip or funny. Play and laughter are powerful in this scenario: when I let my students make me laugh, they feel powerful and competent as well as cool and hip and funny. They feel that they mean something to me. Helping our students feel that they mean something to us is probably the most powerful gift we can give them.
4. What if I feel insecure about my own pronunciation/my ability to teach pronunciation?
You can begin by using materials that will support your own development as well as that of your students. But meanwhile, you can use these feelings as an opportunity to work on your relationship with yourself, to claim your identity as an intelligent learner on a path, and to model self-love in front of your students even though you are not perfect.
When I first started teaching gifted education classes, I would look at my gifted students’ faces to measure my success…but I found those faces to be more “dead” at the end of class than when my students walked in the door. Talk about horrifying! The only way I survived was to see my performance somewhere on an arc towards truly good teaching. Mediocre is a hard place to be, especially if we’re doing our job in front of an audience.
But an opportunity arises there that we can’t find anywhere else: we can remember what it feels like to be a student and reframe for ourselves what it means to learn. Over the course of our lives, most of us have come to feel that mistakes are shameful – probably because when we made dangerous mistakes as children, the adults around us scared us to keep us safe. Most of us have never revisited that early association of mistakes with shame. But mistakes are data that we need in order to learn.
We can reframe mistakes as data for ourselves and for our students in class. When they make a mistake and look ashamed, we can tell them with honest excitement: «Ничего́ стра́шного! Оши́бки – это информа́ция. Вот, тепе́рь у нас но́вая иде́я, но́вое поня́тие. Како́е у нас ново́е поня́тие?»
If you are not feeling great about your own pronunciation as a non-native speaker, be vulnerable. Tell your students that you are also a student: «Вы у́читесь, и я учу́сь! Я учу́ ру́сский язык, как и вы. Мы все у́чимся краси́во говори́ть по-ру́сски.» Decide to be confident. If you get something wrong, say «Ой! Извини́те, вы пра́вы!» with gusto and good humor. Let go of shame and refocus on your identity as an unsinkable learner. You are modeling the best way of being a student for your own students.
If you are not feeling great about your ability to teach pronunciation, you can be vulnerable here, too. Tell your students that you are also a student: «Вы у́читесь, и я учу́сь! Я учу́сь преподава́ть ру́сский язы́к. Вы мне ска́жете, что вам помога́ет. Вме́сте узна́ем, что для студе́нтов поле́зно.» You are modeling lifelong learning for your students.
In short, whether you are a non-native speaker or a native speaker, you can place yourself on the path with your students. I have had to do this as a teacher of gifted high school students – there’s no way I can be an expert in all of their areas of interest, especially technology! So I have had to shift my role with my students from “expert” to “intelligent learner with a lot of life experience”. You can do this, too. And be prepared to admire your students when their skills surpass yours as a non-native speaker or when they have a good idea that you never thought of as their teacher. We need to give up the idea that we have to be the source of all knowledge and wisdom in the classroom! It’s better for all of us when we step into the boat with our students and pull together.
5. What core concepts will help my students improve quickly?
Three core concepts can help students make huge gains: sound-identity, default mouth position, and learning style.
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 him 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 subconsciously 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 we speak for some sounds, but starting from and returning to this position helps us create the basic shape of the mouth that makes our speech sound Russian. (For detailed info, click here.) If our students work REALLY carefully to acquire this habit, everything they say will instantly sound 1000% more Russian. : )
What kind of learners are my individual students?
Our students generally fall into one of two categories.
They like to analyze things
They naturally pay attention to details
They reject “big picture” thinking, hyperfocusing on details and distinctions
They are more likely to disagree with someone’s assertion than to agree
(Btw, if you find your brain saying “it depends on the assertion” this may be your profile!)
They hate analysis
They have no idea what’s happening their mouth when they speak and don’t seem curious
They are drawn to the big picture
They learn more “by feel” than by dissecting everything
They would never read more than the first and last bullet points…too much text!
In all my years of teaching pronunciation and leading vocal ensembles, I’ve learned that most people identify with one of these profiles and that they really benefit from different approaches.
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!) These students benefit from approaches and 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.) We need to help these students use our materials in a way that works for them. If that means ignoring some of the analysis and relying more on listening and repeating using their own innate ability to imitate sound, then that’s ok.
The best approach, however, is to encourage 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.
6. How can students work toward mastery?
Here's my basic recipe for maximum efficiency, written for an audience of students. It's an iterative process. It's how I have worked toward mastery, and we can help our students walk this same path. Any activities that facilitate this process for students will help them, including in-class activities and homework.
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) 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. 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 reading 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.
7. What skills will my students be building?
While engaging in the iterative process of listening, wondering, experimenting, and listening again, students 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
It’s a lot! Students think they 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. Gradually, we will develop new motor habits, along with an auditory memory of what a sound or word or phrase should sound like, that will bring us another few steps along the path to mastery.
8. What skills will I need to build?
If you’ve been teaching for a while, you probably already know what to say to your students to help them pronounce certain words and sounds – things like: “hang out longer on the stressed syllable” and “more air for soft ть”. If you want to ramp up your attention to pronunciation, you will be experimenting with new advice…but this requires a lot of courage!
With pronunciation more than other facets of language, we never know if what we say will end up helping a student. We may give them some guidance and they may end up sounding exactly the same – or worse! This is the possibility I used to dread at the beginning of my work on pronunciation with students, especially in my first master classes.
So one skill that we all need to build is tolerating the discomfort of not knowing whether our advice will work for our students right away. Without the ability to tolerate that discomfort, we hide from the possibility of failure by simply not teaching pronunciation at all.
Let’s get past that point. Let’s embrace the reality that we’re not going to be able to help all of our students with all of their difficulties right away and let’s get used to saying to ourselves and to them: «Пока́ нет! Порабо́тайте ещё, и я поду́маю, что мо́жет помо́чь.»
Meanwhile, you can consult my materials if you like. I have a whole video library of advice for students on how to produce individual sounds, and you could see if anything there could help you work with students. If you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me the institution where you teach or provide me with some other form of verification, I will give you a code for free access. I have been working with US-based students for years, so much of my advice is adapted to their English-language habits, but you may find some ideas there that could help your students as well. You could also assign the videos to students directly or have them subscribe to my daily (Mon-Fri) podcast that provides practice that corresponds directly to the videos in the video library. I created the video library ($9.99 student access for one year) and the podcast ($5/month) as inexpensive supplementary course materials, but both of these resources could help you build your own bank of advice for students regarding pronunciation.
The most critical faculty you will be building, however, is your ear. Many teachers can tell that something is “not quite right” with a student’s pronunciation but have no idea what is going wrong. Start asking yourself questions. Are they using too much air or not enough? Are they emphasizing every syllable instead of just one? Is their lack of skill with intonation preventing me from understanding them? Are they using the tip of their tongue instead of the part behind the tip? Are they voicing a consonant that should be devoiced? Asking these questions and others can help you begin to analyze what you are hearing and diagnose the problem. Once you understand what is happening, you’ll be better able to provide the remedy. You may want to ask students to record something for you so you can replay it and think about it outside of class.
It may also help you to become an apprentice in my five-week Master Class. I teach my apprentices what to listen for using a menu I’ve developed over the years, and they provide weekly feedback to a few of my students with me looking over their shoulder – I listen after they are finished drafting feedback and I add observations of my own or otherwise edit their feedback before sending it to both the student and the apprentice. It’s a win-win-win for all of us!
9. What topics should I teach?
I recommend teaching the Russian default mouth position as priority #1. You read about it here or watch me teach it in my video library – or if you want to see how I taught it to my most recent group of Master Class students, you can watch the videos of a recent Zoom session (unsurprisingly, I teach it in the Week 1 video!)
It’s also important to convince students to trust their ears rather than their eyes: «Уши, не глаза́». Type I and II Reduction (а/о and е/я), hard vs soft consonants, and voicing rules are all foundational. See below for the full list of topics that I teach in my video course and book, Unlocking Russian Pronunciation (you can get a faculty review copy and access to the videos here).
Resetting Your Default Mouth Position
Russian Letters and How to Transcribe Them
How Hard and Soft Sounds Work Together
Consonants That Are Always Hard or Always Soft
The Effect of Emphasis (Stress) on Vowels
Type I Reduction: о/а
Type II Reduction: е/я
Special Rule for Grammatical Endings and Particles
How Singing Changes Pronunciation
Voiced and Voiceless Consonants
Devoicing at the Ends of Phrases
Regressive Assimilation in Consonant Clusters
Renegade Letters г and ч
Prepositions That Lose It (Stress)
Signs of Separation: ъ, ь
How to Pronounce -ться and -тся
How to Pronounce -ее and -яя
Special Russian Words
Unstressed же, ше, це
Exceptional Consonant Combinations
Secret Phoneme ж’ж’
Secret Phoneme Voiced х
10. What are the best study techniques?
The following techniques are written for an audience of students – try them with yours!
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.
We are used to making flashcards to help us learn the meanings of words, but I’m recommending that you use them 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 and 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 an original 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 it goes off, ask yourself whether you’re on target with your goal. I like to use my fitbit, which vibrates and is easy to reset (and would be great to use during class because it doesn't make noise), 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 simply 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. So 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 monitor your own speech, listening for accuracy and pausing to organize your jaw, tongue and lips before you pronounce difficult sounds and words (all while you recall vocabulary, calculate all the grammatical endings you’ll need, and attend to your relationship with your speaking companion…!) Obviously, 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 vary the degree of control you exercise over 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.
11. What kind of problems could I run into?
Be prepared for different students to have different levels of success imitating sound and making adjustments. This is awkward! Choosing to have relaxed and upbeat energy can help. Eventually you will learn what to say to help most students with most sounds, which will make it easier to tolerate temporary failures.
Be prepared to read levels of tension in students. Sometimes students try too hard: they are too tense, unable to move away from what they’ve already tried. Do what you can to dial their level of care down. Help them relax by taking deep breaths. Cue them to listen carefully to your example or to a native speaker before responding. Coach them to slow down and focus, rather than rapid-firing attempt after attempt, which they do out of a desire to please their teacher and “get it” right away. Tell them that good pronunciation is a journey,: «Ничего́ стра́шного! Говори́ть по-ру́сски краси́во – э́то до́лгий путь. Ка́ждый день постепе́нно всё лу́чше и лу́чше бу́дете говори́ть. Че́рез неде́лю лу́чше. Че́рез ме́сяц, че́рез год – ещё лу́чше!»
On the other hand, be prepared to dial the level of care up for some students. You can do this by not “yessing” them, by listening carefully and continuing to work on a sound with them until they actually say it differently. It sometimes takes four or five repetitions before students even understand what it means to pronounce something differently, let alone better.
Pronunciation is something many students have never studied before, so we need to be prepared for students to have absolutely no idea how to begin shifting what they sound like when they speak. Many students begin their pronunciation journey by attempting to sound “foreign” – they try whatever sounds different from their native language, whether it’s close to Russian or not! Interestingly, I’ve found that many students from the US will use a soft «л» sound everywhere when they begin speaking Russian, even where there should be a hard «л». This is strange because English has a hard «л» (think “all” or “school”)…why wouldn’t students default to a phoneme they already have in their repertoire? I think it’s because soft «л» must be one of the features they’ve noticed in foreign accents, so they deploy it subconsciously at the beginning of their study of Russian in a first attempt to sound different. Although it’s not correct, this is great! Through the lens of second language acquisition, we see that students are taking steps to sound different. The next level is learning how to sound different in Russian.
Finally, be prepared for some students to learn analytically and for others to learn holistically. Analytical learners are able to focus on isolated details, sounds, and techniques and to micromanage their jaw, tongue and lips, but others totally reject an analytical approach. See this section for more information about how to work with each type of learner.
12. What are the biggest mistakes teachers make?
The most common mistake is probably to avoid teaching pronunciation at all! It is tempting to give pronunciation short shrift because we do not feel confident about our ability to teach it well. But the only way we improve is by plunging in, experimenting, and seeing what works.
Another common mistake is failing to manage our own emotion. There will be times when what we say does not help our students fix a pronunciation mistake immediately, or when we don’t know what to say to begin to help a student. It’s easy to feel tense and worried that we’re not going to be able to figure out how to help them. But our students need to borrow positive energy from us in order to offset their own negative feelings when they are not succeeding. In order to stay relaxed and upbeat, we need to practice saying to our students and to ourselves things like: «Пока́ нет, э́то непра́вильно, но ничего́! Порабо́таем ещё, и я поду́маю, что мо́жет помо́чь.»
A common mistake for teachers who want to try something new is taking on too much. If you want to start incorporating more pronunciation into your curriculum, it will be tempting to set too many goals…and it will also be easy to then let the whole enterprise go when life gets unwieldy. The wiser approach is to choose just one new thing – a topic, a technique, or a routine – to add into your practice and to schedule it in. When you’re ready, you can add another. Easier said than done, I know!
Another mistake we sometimes make is repeating what we’ve been taught and failing to notice when it’s either not correct or not helpful. It’s important to reexamine our old standbys from time to time, to make sure they are still serving us.
Finally, and most importantly, a general mistake that teachers make is failing to connect with their students. I have been there, believe me! When I first started teaching math at the high school level, I had no idea how to connect with my students. I was too tense and too rigid about rules, and consequently I was not well liked and even subtly undermined by students who were not ill-intentioned but who could not resist the temptation to take advantage of me so they could laugh with their buddies. But we learn through failure! The key for me was watching my students’ faces and noticing what I did that got genuine buy-in. Eventually I found that being authentic, having a reasonable approach to rules and deadlines, and actively trying to have fun with my students brought me the relationships I was looking for. Once you have all of that going, being vulnerable with your students can take your relationships to the next level.
13. Where should I start?
If you want to help students make a huge difference in their pronunciation right away, here are the most important steps to take.
Step 1: Get your students in the right headspace.
Students need to embrace the idea that they need to create a Russian sound-identity, a version of themselves who sounds Russian. It’s normal for students to feel inauthentic or pretentious at first, so we need to help them find a “way in”. You could discuss the issue explicitly with students in class or you could show them my Russian Pronunciation 101 page for students – scroll down to the “What core concepts will help me improve quickly?” section, where I talk specifically about creating a Russian sound-identity. Hopefully together we can help students push through the discomfort of sounding unlike themselves while they construct a new sound identity!
Step 2: Help your students reset their default mouth position.
The Russian default mouth position is the foundation of everything. Without it, nothing they say will sound Russian, but once students start using it, everything will sound instantly more Russian! See here for more info.
Step 3: Convince your students to trust their ears, not their eyes.
Our students already have an innate ability to mimic sound, so have them close their eyes and take advantage of it. Closing their eyes will help them prioritize sound over sight and let go of their predisposition to pronounce words as they are spelled. Spelling is misleading! Tell your students to tell their 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 students listen to native speakers, record themselves, and listen back.
The key to mastery is not how hard our students try, but how consistent they are about giving intelligent effort – and how consistent we are about asking for it. Intelligent effort is the opposite of mindless repetition. We need to model curiosity: «Что тут происхо́дит? Почему́ так, а не так?» We show students how to pay keen attention to both small details and the big picture. We can assign pronunciation homework that asks students to record themselves repeating after native speakers, to listen back, and to write reflections about what our students noticed and what they think might help next. This is the type of homework I am developing as an extension of my in-class video series Фоне́тика на уро́ке с Ки́рой, but you could develop your own assignments along these lines.
I hope you have found some ideas you can use here. Feel free to write me with your thoughts at email@example.com – and send me more ideas and techniques that you use. We all benefit from pooling our experience! And please sign up for my mailing list to be notified when my in-class video series is ready and if you'd like to be invited to future Zoom conversations for teachers about pronunciation. Hope I see you there!