This article is aimed to show you common confusions--or let me call them "errors"--Russian learners make at first since they are not yet very familiar with the language. Being a teacher, I have noticed that too little attention is paid to correct pronunciation by Russian learners.
The reasons might be as follows: a teacher does not have enough time to correct all the students in a group during the class; or a student is not corrected during an individual lesson because a teacher wants to show the student's high progress and stimulate him/her to speak faster while skipping minor errors.
In the event that a teacher does not correct or explain basic reading rules to beginners, the students thus incorrectly learn words. You might have noticed it yourself if you have learned a foreign (even native) word with incorrect pronunciation. It is very hard to correct it later and get rid of a mistake after that new word becomes ingrained in your long-term memory.
Here I am going to show you where you should pay more attention while memorizing and pronouncing some basic Russian words and phrases. The list of tips I am going to give is far from complete; it should be much longer. But this will be a good start for you to pay attention to what you learn.
Actually, every student makes individual mistakes, but there are still some common errors which my colleagues and I notice. So let us begin with these common mistakes:
Many Russian learners do not pay attention to one of the main reading rules when an unstressed letter “o” is pronounced as [a] and not [o]. For example, this word хорошо́ should be pronounced as [harashó] with the last stressed letter “o.” Naturally, when you see “o” you want to pronounce it like [o], but in Russian it is not that simple.
If you say this word with three [o] sounds, it means that you are either an illiterate person from the village speaking a dialect or that you come from the past by a time machine. The fact is that in Kievian Russia many centuries ago, people used to pronounce all letters “o” no matter the stress in the word. With time this rule has changed. Here is a link to a useful video I made to show the correct pronunciation of this word and its meanings.
2. Что - Сто
Please pay attention to how you pronounce these words: что and сто. As you will learn during your first Russian lessons, что [shto] means “what/that,” such as in this simple question, Что э́то? (What is it?). And “one hundred” in Russian is сто [sto]. Therefore, I recommend you practice saying [shto - sto].
3. Почему́? - Потому́ что
At the beginning level, you might meet these useful expressions: Почему́? Потому́ что (Why? Because). Many foreigners make a mistake with потому́ что because they think the question and the answer are pronounced similarly [pachi:mú - pachi:mú shta]. But that is a common mistake! Note that it is not [pachi:mu shta], but [patamú shta].
4. Де́вушка - Де́душка
It seems very amusing when a foreigner calls a girl, which is де́вушка, an old man, which is де́душка. That happens because these words sound alike for them: [dyevushka] and [dyedushka], with only one sound difference. So please be careful when you address a girl or lady of the age of 16-35 to use де́вушка [dyevushka]. And when you address a man of 70 or older, use де́душка [dyedushka].
5. Двена́дцать (12) - Девятна́дцать (19)
Yes, I understand your pain when memorising these words. Twelve and nineteen are very difficult and confusing numbers. In Russian they are spelled двена́дцать and девятна́дцать and are pronounced [dvi:natsat - divitnatsat].
6. Маши́на - Мужчи́на
The following two words have completely different meanings: маши́на and мужчи́на. The first one is “a car,” and the second one is “a man.” The pronunciation is [mashi:na] and [muschi:na]. In Russian, машина reminds one of “machine” and мужчина sounds like “mule she no” (male, not a female).
7. Стол - Стул
Perhaps it's not the most important distinction to make, but стол and стул are very easily confused. I suggest you imagine a round table, стол [stol] with the letter “o” and a stool/chair which both sound like стул [stul].
8. Страна́ - Стра́нно
These words are written slightly differently but have a large difference in meaning and stress. Cтрана́ [straná] means “country,” while стра́нно [strána] means “strange.” It might help if you remember that in both Russian and English for стра́нно and strange, the first vowel “а” is stressed.
9. Всё - Ещё
Even though it might seem strange, English speakers do struggle with the pronunciation of these short words. It is hard to say [fs] and [sch], so you really have to take your time and practice saying всё [fsyo], which means “all, everything” and ещё [yischo], which means “more, still.” Try saying this expression: Странно, он всё ещё как ребёнок. (It's strange, he is still like a child.)
Finally and most importantly is the word пробле́ма [prablema], or “problem,” and the expression Без пробле́м! [bies prablem]. This means “No problem/No worries.” This takes us back to the first example when I mentioned an important spelling rule of the letter “o” in Russian. Remember that there is no [o] sound at all.
As you likely understand, this is just a tiny list of words which are difficult to pronounce and confusing in the Russian language. Believe me, if you make it a habit to remember how the letter “o” is pronounced, it will help you a lot in your further study.
For better memorization, you can watch the video I made and visually remember words with pictures. Moreover, this video where I have recorded all words and expressions from this article will help you remember and practice correct pronunciation of the list mentioned above.
If you wish to learn more, apply to my Skype lessons or feel free to email me your questions regarding the Russian language.
Enjoy your studies!
Hero image by author.