Learning Russian Pt. 2: Speaking Russian – the hard way


Russian pronunciation is easy and hard, all at the same time. It’s easy because 99% of the time, it’s a phonetic language: you simply pronounce every sound in the order it appears. Unlike in English, individual Russian phonemes rarely change: there are about four sounds that change depending on whether they’re stressed or unstressed, but this really isn’t as confusing as English pronunciation with its unpredictable /gh/ and /ou/ sounds.

Russian pronunciation can be hard too, though, precisely because you have to pronounce every sound in the order it appears, and more often than not, it looks like this: consonant-consonant-consonant-consonant-vowel-consonant-consonant-consonant-vowel-consonant-consonant-consonant-consonant..! How hard would it be to throw a couple of extra vowels in there, Russia!?

Let’s take the first word you ever learn in any language: “hello”! In Russian, this is здра́вствуйтe (‘zdrastvoytyeh’). It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? It’s only three syllables, but the many consonants in a row make it very difficult to pronounce, and in our class of 12, there are still a couple of different versions of it flying around the room at any one time! Maybe it’s best to stick to the more informal приве́т (‘preevyet’) instead…

In one lesson, we did a mingling guessing game where all our job titles were up on the board and we had to find out who each job belonged to by asking where everyone works and what they do. We went through the meanings on the board, without giving away which was our job, and when mine came up, everyone (including me!) groaned. I’m a Sales Representative, which in Russian is Tорго́вый представи́тель (‘torgovyee predstaveetyel’): quite a mouthful I’m sure you’ll agree! As we went around mingling and I had to keep repeating this endless job title, the reaction was the same with all of my fellow students: impressed that I could even pronounce it all (although my teacher had made me repeat it many times before the activity began!) and suspicion at my actual job in sales, which usually raises an eyebrow or two…

The easiest way I’ve found to best pronounce Russian is to follow the teacher’s model. At first I found this really difficult, because I thought it was easier to have it written down in front of me and read it from the page. But in fact, this makes it much more difficult as you focus too much on each individual sound: when you repeat after the teacher without a visual aid or prompt, you focus much more on the sound and rhythm of the word. This is obviously a technique I learnt when doing my CELTA: you always model and drill new vocabulary before you write it on the board or show it to the students written down, and I never understood why it was so important until I became the student and realised how much more effective it is to do it this way.

The key to mastering pronunciation is, of course, practice, practice, practice! Having the opportunity to speak freely, even if you make mistakes, is the best way of getting the hang of a language’s speech patterns, intonation and accent. When I’m walking to the train station after class, I’m always mumbling to myself, repeating the words and phrases we’ve learnt that day. People probably think I’m crazy (I probably am!), but it’s all for a good reason – practice makes perfect pronunciation!





Read more about Becca’s journey through the Russian language here:

Part 1: Introduction

Part 3: Vocabulary

Part 4: Motivation



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