Hello! My name is Elena Lesnykh. I hope that some of my suggestions below can help you to properly articulate one of the Russian language's most difficult sounds. This is the case of the letter Pp (transcribed [r]). It is not an exclusively Russian sound because it occurs in several other European languages.
First, let's understand what the Russian sound [r] is…
The Russian hard consonant [r] is a sound produced by the vibration of the tip of the tongue which gives a series of taps against the front of the palate. The tip of the tongue is not backwards.
When you articulate [r] the tip of the tongue bends slightly upwards and vibrates in the stream of air coming out. The back part of the underside of the tongue has an arched form: it is raised and drawn backwards with the base of the tongue. The middle part of the underside of the tongue is concave. The soft palate is raised. Vocal cords are drawn together; they are tense and vibrate. Lips are freely spread so that one can see teeth and the tip of the tongue bent upwards.
роза – [rozuh] – rose
рука – [rookah] – hand
урок – [oorawk] – lesson
ра, ро, ру, роза, рука, урок…
The soft consonant [r’] is the same vibrated sound as the hard [r]. However, in its articulation the center of the tongue is raised towards the hard palate as in the articulation of the vowel Ии [ee]. The tip of the tongue is also a bit closer to the upper teeth than in the hard variation [r].
ии-ря – [eeee-r’ah]
ии-рё – [eeee-r’aw]
ии-ре – [eeee-r’eh]
ии-ри – [eeee-r’ee]
ии-рю – [eeee-r’oo]
ря [r’ah] – рё [r’aw] – ре [r’eh] – ри [r’ee] – рю [r’oo]
ирь [eer’] – эрь [ehr’] – арь [ahr’] – орь [awr’] – урь [oor’]
словарь – [slawvahr’] – dictionary
дверь – [dv’ehr’] – door
ра [rah] – ря [r’ah]
рад – [raht] – glad
ряд – [r’aht] – rowрад, ряд
ро [raw] – рё [r’aw]
рот – [rawt] – mouth
рёв – [r’awf] – roar
ру [roo] – рю [r’oo]
руки – [rook’ee] – hands
брюки – [br’ook’ee] – trousers
ры [rih*] – ри [r’ih]
рыба – [rih*buh] – fish
рис – [r’ees] – rice
It's very useful to have a look at some diagrams with articulation details. It provides an understanding of the proper position of the tongue.
I am sure now it's a bit easier for you to imagine how the tongue should be placed. So let's practice making the sound [r]!
Advice 1: “I'm a cat…purr!”
To pronounce [r] try to purr like a cat:
Exaggerate the sound at first. It will help you to get used to it.
ром – [rawm] – rum
рак – [rahk] – crayfish, crab
брат – [braht] – brother
Advice 2: “dR” Method
Please pronounce the sound [d] ten times:
Next, move the tip of the tongue from the upper teeth slightly back–to the front palate. Try to make a stream of air on the tip of the tongue. You should try many times before the right sound may come.
At the beginning you should do this exercises a few times a day. For example, when you are driving a car or travelling by bus because you are a…ddd…drrrriver.
дрова – [druhvah] – firewood
драка – [drahkuh] – fight
дразнить – [druhzn’eet’] – tease
Дракула – [drahkooluh] – Dracula
Try saying "Dracula" and see if it helps you roll the [r] by putting a “D” in front of it. The tip of your tongue should touch the bottom of your two front teeth. Then when you say "Dracula" please notice that the tongue moves loosely but quickly from the tips of your teeth to the roof of your mouth.
The “dR” method was the only way Vladimir Lenin, father of the October Revolution, founder and leader of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1923, was able to "fake" the trill sound. It's not a secret that he was not able to create the alveolar trill, which is rather unfortunate when you are a leader.
Also try to practice using the “R” in word-initial combinations as “dr-”, “tr-”, “br-”, "pr-”. Can you feel that it is much easier to pronounce in those positions? Once you can do that, work on dropping the initial consonant.
Advice 3: “Butter-ladder” Method
Say each of the following words very quickly:
butter, butter, butter, ladder, ladder, ladder…
Continue saying the words faster and faster. If you prefer one of the words, you may use it exclusively. Eventually you may produce a sound like:
(the “””” representing the trilling motion)
Then try the “rr” sound in Spanish (er “”””re).
Well… I know all these exercises are not easy. Many Russian kids around 4 years old are visiting speech therapists to learn exactly this sound.
Please don't suffer through it if you just CANNOT.
It's possible the piece of skin inside the mouth located below the tongue (where the tongue joins the lower palate) is too short for some people. So the tongue physically cannot reach the top palate for any dental fricatives. Other physical deformities as a result of injury can also make this difficult. For example, if your vocal cords are damaged you may have a hard time with trills.
In the end I want to advise you to relax while doing the exercises above, to use a mirror, and to take it easy if you cannot grasp this immediately. You are already a hero if you have decided to study Russian at all!
- Tania Bobriskoy, Irina Gsovskaya. How to pronounce Russian correctly. 1991, USA
Hero image by Cherus (CC-BY-SA-3.0)