09 May Most Common English Pronunciation Errors made by Russian Speakers
Russian speakers and those who speak related languages often find it challenging to replicate British speech patterns without training in English phonology
It can be challenging to become totally confident with the rhythm, tone, and stress patterns of any foreign language, and it’s normal to experience interference from your native tongue.
For Russian speakers, native language interference often affects the articulation of speech sounds in English as well as intonation.
Here are some common errors made by Russian speakers and our top tips on how to avoid them…
1. Under-using unstressed vowels (schwa)
One vowel that is often particularly challenging for Russian speakers is the English schwa /ə/ phoneme, which can never be stressed in English.
Russian speakers frequently pronounce unstressed vowels, like the schwa, with too much energy and too much muscle tension when speaking English.
For example, today would often be articulated as /tuːˈdeɪ/ rather than /təˈdeɪ/. If you are a Russian speaker wanting to fix this native language interference issue, try relaxing the mouth fully on unstressed syllables that are transcribed /ə/ in the dictionary. Practise the relaxed, lazy schwa sound in the following words to give your ear and your brain a chance to replicate this lazy vowel in your own unstressed syllables:
problem, family, support, balloon, silent, the
Because Russian is a phonetic language, what you see in the spelling is what you say. That’s why native speakers of Russian may have the instinct to treat English in the same way: remember that English pronunciation and spelling don’t always connect in an intuitive way! Using our e-book (linked below) will help you navigate the rules and the basics of the exceptions, and the Complete English Pronunciation Course will help you navigate the additional exceptions.
The soft, glottal /h/ phoneme found in English words like happy or wholesome doesn’t exist in the Russian language. The closest sound is represented by /x/, which is a sound that isn’t used in English, aside from in the Scottish word for lake, loch, and other similar borrowed words. Some Russian speakers of English replace /h/ with something closer to /x/ when speaking English. This can be avoided by articulating /h/ with a very soft out-breath, and no friction at the back of the palate.
Remember to produce this sound with a sigh, instead of producing it on or near the soft palate. Make sure that you keep your tongue relaxed in your mouth during this sound. Keep in mind that /h/ is sometimes silent at the beginning of words, like in “hour” or “heir”.
heard, however, hand, house, happily
3. Stress and intonation across the phrase
Russian uses different stress and rhythm patterns from English. That’s why it can be tough for native Russian speakers to replicate and interpret British stress and rhythm patterns when speaking English.
Fortunately, British Accent Academy has created the ultimate Intonation, Rhythm & Stress E-Book, which spells out everything you need to become a master of English prosody:
In English, stress will typically be placed on content words (such as adjectives, verbs, and nouns) – in a neutral context – rather than on function words (such as pronouns, prepositions, or determiners). Many such function words are also pronounced with a weak vowel.
Try out the following sentences and notice how shifting the main stress in the phrase changes the meaning entirely or adds a different emphasis. Getting a grasp of these subtleties can make you sound much more fluent and nativelike when articulating English.
I don’t think he would \do that! vs. I don’t think \/he would do that!
Are we /lost? vs. /Are we lost?
Russian speakers often make use of different patterns of tone compared to British native speakers. To sound extra polite, engaged, and appropriate in English, experiment with British patterns of tone like the high fall when you want to sound polite, interested, or engaged in English.
How are \you?
The course below is also designed with Russian speakers specifically in mind:
4. Positioning vowels
Russian speakers often need help positioning the English vowels accurately, particularly the open vowels /æ/ like in “back” and /ɒ/ like in “lot”.
Stretch the jaw open for:
She’s been back /æ/ a lot /ɒ/.
Many Russian speakers tend to use Russian vowels to replace two, three, or even four vowels that speakers of Received Pronunciation would identify as being distinct and contrastive. It’s normal to need a little help in this area.
At British Accent Academy, we have helped thousands of Russian speakers to pinpoint which vowels need to be tweaked and then we have supported those people until they achieve success.
5. Distinction between /w/ vs /v/
Russian speakers frequently merge /w/ and /v/ due to the absence of the /w/ approximant in Russian. Those who are learning English phonology often initially confuse these English speech sounds, pronouncing where as vere and water as vater. Round the lips for /w/ and bite the lip for /v/.
“Wor” words tend to cause a great deal of problems for Russian speakers.
Fix your “wor” with this pronunciation e-book (containing audio)
Practice pronouncing the following minimal pairs. Remember, to pronounce the /v/ sound you want to touch your bottom lip to your upper teeth, but for the /w/ sound, you want to purse your lips as if you are articulating an /u/ sound.
Read more about pronouncing /w/ in this blog post
6. /r/ & silent <r>
In Russian, the /r/ sound is articulated with the tongue striking the alveolar ridge and <r> is always pronounced. Meanwhile, Received Pronunciation, one of many British accents, features both a pronounced, non-trilled r and a silent r in certain positions.
Learn the rules and exceptions of pronouncing /r/ in Modern Received Pronunciation
To pronounce an /r/ in a British way, curl the tip of the tongue without touching the roof of the mouth, adding tension to it.
Keep this in mind when practising the following words:
trust, remember, round
7. Dental fricatives (voiced and voiceless TH)
Russian speakers may find words with ‘th’ sounds challenging (like think or the) because these dental fricatives don’t exist in Russian. This is why these words are commonly mispronounced as sink or zee.
It is important to practise the British pronunciations of /θ/ and /ð/ if you are aiming for British Received Pronunciation as these phonemes are present in some of the most commonly used words in English.
Make sure that the tongue is touching the back of the upper teeth or the edge of the upper teeth and that their air is being hissed when pronouncing the following words!
there, these, thoughts, other, three, theory, thanks
8. Plosive Consonants /p/ /t/ /k/
Unlike in Russian, English voiceless plosive consonants are normally articulated with an extra puff of air. Russian speakers tend to miss out the extra puff of air that is needed when articulating these sounds in stressed syllables in Englush, resulting in words like park and pig occasionally sounding more like bark and big to the ears of British native speakers. Practice pronouncing voiceless plosive consonants with the release of a small puff of air.
prepare, pave, pain, cake, cat, tape, two
9. Diphthong (Gliding) Vowel Sounds
Russian has much fewer vowel sounds than English, and doesn’t have the same gliding, diphthong vowels that English has. For this reason, speakers of Russian will often use a single-position vowel in English when a gliding diphthong would be more appropriate. Other Russian speakers of English may articulate diphthongs too slowly.
When practising the following words containing gliding vowels (diphthongs), remember that diphthongs are spoken in a single syllable. Pay close attention to changing your mouth position as you quickly transition from one sound to the next.
boy, pier, Europe, mouth, boat, now
10. Overusing velarised, “dark L” when aiming for Received Pronunciation
Russian speakers of English tend to use a velarised “l” all the time, while speakers of Received Pronunciation typically use the non-velarised “clear L” before vowel sounds and the velarised “dark L” before consonant sounds or before phrase boundaries. To pronounce the clear L before vowel sounds in Received Pronunciation, relax the back of the tongue as you reach your tongue tip to the alveolar ridge.
Practise relaxing the back of the tongue before vowels in these L words:
lip, leaf, lean, low, later
Sign up for a course with British Accent Academy to reduce native language interference from Russian or to work on any aspect of your pronunciation, intonation, and connected speech using a Modern Received Pronunciation model.