Are you a native Russian speaker who:
- struggles with pronouncing American English vowels, such as the tense EE /i/ sound in beat and the lax IH /ɪ/ sound in bit?
- has difficulty speaking American English with appropriate fluency, intonation, and flow?
- is confused about how to pronounce the American R /ɹ/ consonant, like in the words world, girl, and first?
American English Pronunciation for Russian Speakers: Top 5 Pronunciation Challenges
If you are a native speaker of Russian and you struggle with American English pronunciation, then this resource is for you. Here you’ll learn 5 of the most common pronunciation challenges that native speakers of Russian experience when speaking English, and you’ll learn how to improve your pronunciation of American English.
Read about the top 5 pronunciation areas below, and then watch the free English pronunciation video lessons to learn how to pronounce each sound. Don’t forget to click here to download your free Guidebook to the Sounds of American English, too!
Russian Challenge #1: The American R /ɹ/ Sound
In Russian, the Cyrillic r is a consonant, and it is pronounced by touching the tongue tip to the roof of the mouth. However, the American English R /ɹ/ is pronounced very differently, and it can be either a consonant or a vowel, depending on where it occurs in a word. Both the consonant R and the vowel R are difficult for many native speakers of Russian to pronounce.
The American R /ɹ/ functions as a consonant when it comes at the beginning of a syllable or when it's part of a consonant cluster. The words right and bread both contain a consonant R. But when the R sound comes after a vowel in the same syllable, it functions as one unit with that vowel and becomes a vowel R. The words world, girl, and first all contain a vowel R.
It's common for native speakers of Russian to tap or trill the American R sound, which means the tongue tip makes contact with the roof of the mouth when they pronounce that word. This results in the R consonant sounding closer to a D consonant in English, so the word bread sounds like "b-ded" to the ears of a native speaker of American English.
When Russian speakers pronounce the vowel R in American English, the pronunciation can become even more challenging due to the nature of English spelling and pronunciation. Sometimes the vowel that comes before the R is pronounced in American English, and sometimes it isn't. For example, the word first contains a vowel R in its pronunciation (the ER /ɝ/ vowel), but this vowel is pronounced just like the R sound. It's tricky because the spelling of this vowel is "ir", but the letter "i" is not pronounced; instead, it's just the R sound. When native speakers of Russian include the letter "i" in the pronunciation, the word first sounds closer to "feerst" to the ears of a native speaker of American English.
The word fire, on the other hand, also contains the "ir" spelling, but the vowel is pronounced in this word: "fye-er".
How to Pronounce the American R /ɹ/ Sound
The American R /ɹ/ consonant and the vowel R are pronounced the same tongue placement, but they differ slightly with the lip position. The tongue is in a wide shape, the back of the tongue is high and pulls back, and the tongue tip is neutral (the tongue tip doesn’t touch anything inside the mouth!). The lip position for the American R /ɹ/ consonant is very similar to the OO /u/ vowel, like in the word boot - the lips round into a tight circle. However, the lip position for the vowel R is slightly more relaxed and the lips flare away from the teeth slightly.
To learn how to pronounce the American R /ɹ/ consonant and the vowel R (also called R-colored vowels) in American English, watch the pronunciation videos below. Or you can read about their pronunciations by clicking here: How to Pronounce the R /ɹ/ Consonant; How to Pronounce the ER /ɝ, ɚ/ Vowels; An Introduction to R-colored Vowels.
Russian Challenge #2: Intonation
Intonation refers to the melody of speech: the highs and lows of the pitch of the voice. It's helpful to think of the highs of the voice as "peaks" and the lows of the voice as "valleys". Intonation is very important to conveying the intended meaning of your message in American English. Just a slight upward change in pitch can transform a statement into a question, and adding even more upward inflection can change the question into one that conveys shock, doubt, or even annoyance.
The rules of Russian intonation are very different from the rules of American English intonation. Russian intonation tends to start at a midpoint (somewhere in the middle of the vocal range) and then move downward. This results in an overall downbeat or somewhat depressed tone in American English because the highest pitches of intonation are missing from the message.
In American English, the pitch of the voice tends to go up on 1-2 focus words per thought group (the "peaks"), and then the remaining words are pronounced at a much lower pitch (the "valleys" of the voice). This results in a bigger contrast between the highest pitches and the lowest pitches of the message, and it allows listeners to understand which words are stressed (the highest notes, the "peaks") and unstressed (the lowest notes, the "valleys").
How to Pronounce American English Intonation
The rules of American English intonation are better thought of as guidelines. There are patterns that native speakers tend to follow when speaking, but there are always exceptions to the guidelines based on the speaker's preferences, the context of the conversation, etc.
So to begin learning about the many types of American English intonation patterns, watch the videos below. Or you can read about American English intonation by clicking here: Advanced Intonation of Statements and Questions; Sound Natural and Native with Intonation Templates; 3 Powerful Techniques to BOOST Your Intonation.
Russian Challenge #3: The American English Vowels
American English vowel pronunciation is challenging for many non-native speakers of English, and this can arise for many different reasons. But the number one reason why American English vowels are so challenging to pronounce is related to the spelling of American English words.
American English is not a phonetic language, which means that the spelling of a word doesn't always match up with the way it is pronounced. Consider the letter "a" in the words apple, again, and place. Four "a" letters, four different pronunciations! The very nature of the spelling of American English makes it challenging (and sometimes impossible) to predict how a word is pronounced.
Therefore, many non-native speakers, including Russian speakers, may pronounce a word according to how it is spelled, and this can result in many pronunciation mistakes.
The top 3 vowels that most native speakers of Russian struggle with pronouncing accurately in English words are the AA /æ/ as in bat vowel; the AH /ɑ/ as in bought vowel; and the IH /ɪ/ as in bit vowel.
The AA /æ/ vowel doesn't exist in Russian, so native speakers of Russian may substitute the vowel that sounds the closest to AA /æ/, and that is typically EH /ɛ/. This means a word like dad might be pronounced closer to dead, and this can lead to a lot of confusion for native speakers of American English.
The AH /ɑ/ vowel can be especially difficult for native speakers of Russian because the spelling of American English words. In English, this vowel is often represented by two letters: the letter "o" as in the word job, or the letter "a" as in the word father. Both of these spellings can be tricky for Russian speakers to pronounce.
Russian speakers typically pronounce the letter "o" as "oh", so the word job might sound like "jobe". They may also round their lips too much when pronouncing AH /ɑ/ in words like call and long, which results in "kwall" and "lwong", respectively.
The IH /ɪ/ as in bit vowel does exist in Russian phonology in unstressed, reduced syllables. However, Russian speakers still struggle with pronouncing this vowel accurately as they may pronounce a word like it is spelled. This type of pronunciation pattern can result in confusing the long, tense EE /i/ as in beat vowel and the short, lax IH /ɪ/ as in bit vowel. A phrase like his big sister, which uses the IH /ɪ/ vowel, might be mispronounced as "heez beeg seester", with the EE /i/ vowel. Or the opposite may happen: the phrase she sees Lisa, which uses the EE /i/ vowel, might be mispronounced as "shi siz lissa".
How to Pronounce the American English Vowels
There are four main things to consider when pronouncing American English vowels:
- Tongue placement: Is the tongue at the front, middle, or back of the mouth?
- Tongue position/jaw position: Is the tongue high/jaw closed or is the tongue low/jaw open?
- Lip placement: Are the lips rounded or retracted?
- Tension: Are the muscles tense or relaxed?
To learn how to pronounce the AA /æ/, AH /ɑ/ and IH /ɪ/ vowels in American English, watch the pronunciation videos below. Or you can read about their pronunciations by clicking here: How to Pronounce the AA /æ/ Vowel; How to Pronounce the AH /ɑ/ Vowel; How to Pronounce the IH /ɪ/ Vowel.
Russian Challenge #4: Final "y" Endings
In American English, it's common for the EE /i/ as in beat vowel to be spelled with the letter "y", like in the words funny, twenty, and energy. The EE /i/ vowel is considered a long, tense vowel, which means it is typically held out for a longer duration than short, lax vowels, such as the IH /ɪ/ as in bit vowel.
When the EE /i/ vowel comes at the end of a word, such as the words funny, twenty, and energy, it is common for that vowel to be held out a little longer in duration, and the intonation of the voice also tends to glide downward. This is also true when the EE /i/ vowel is in a stressed syllable, like in the words bee, please, and needle.
It is common for native speakers of Russian to clip the long, tense EE /i/ vowel a bit short and pronounce it closer to the short, lax IH /ɪ/ vowel or the short, lax EH /ɛ/ vowel, especially when the EE /i/ vowel is spelled with the letter "y" and comes at the end of a word. This type of pronunciation pattern results in the words funny, twenty, and energy sounding closer to "fun-eh", "twent-eh", and "energ-eh".
How to Pronounce Final "y" Endings
In order to pronounce final "y" endings that should be pronounced as EE /i/, it's helpful to pretend that the final "y" ending is actually spelled like "eee", and extending the final sound while you glide your voice down in pitch quickly. It may also be helpful to practice this final EE /i/ sound within the context of vowel to vowel linking, which necessitates that you hold out the final EE /i/ sound in order to link two words or syllables together.
To learn how to pronounce final "y" endings in American English, watch the videos below. Or you can read about the pronunciation by clicking here: How to Pronounce the EE /i/ Vowel; Vowel to Vowel Linking in American English; How to Pronounce BIG Words in English.
Russian Challenge #5: Addition of /j/ After Consonants (aka, palatalization)
Russian phonology is commonly described as having 34 consonants, which can be divided into two main groups: hard or plain consonants (like the letter "н" in the "ня" combination) and soft or palatalized consonants (like the letter "н" in the "на" combination). To change a hard consonant to a soft consonant, the speaker adds a quick /j/ sound at the end (this isn't entirely accurate, but this simplified explanation will work for this resource), similar to what a speaker of American English does after the /p/ consonant in the word pure.
This process is called palatalization because it involves arching the tongue up towards the palate (the middle part of the roof of the mouth), and this results in the /j/ consonant sound (like the "y" in the English words yes, yesterday, and yellow).
Native speakers of Russian may misuse this type of palatalization in English words where it doesn't occur in the pronunciation, and this happens most often when a word contains the the EH /ɛ/ as in bet vowel, but it can also happen with other vowels as well. This type of pronunciation pattern results in a word like bet being pronounced as "byet" or the word his being pronounced as "hyiz".
While this type of pronunciation pattern isn't likely to cause too much confusion for a native speaker of American English, it can distract the listener and cause them to think, "Where is this person from?"
How to Eliminate Palatalization in American English Pronunciation
In order to eliminate palatalization in the pronunciation of American English words, try to allow the back of the tongue to relax and/or drop at the end of the consonant (and before you pronounce the vowel) in a word. Think about allowing the air to flow out of the mouth in the space between the back of the tongue and the soft palate.
To help you reduce and eliminate palatalization in your pronunciation of American English, watch the videos below. Or you can read about how to eliminate palatalization by clicking here: How to Pronounce the EH /ɛ/ Vowel; How to Pronounce the K /k/ and G /g/ Consonants; How to Pronounce the H /h/ Consonant.