In this article I'm writing about Russian pronunciation mistakes--mistakes that make even a proficient Russian speaker sound unnatural and occasionally can cause misunderstanding. If you're interested in improving your pronunciation and would like to sound more like a native, here are five tips to accomplish this.


1. AAAAAAAAA! А́канье


А́канье, or in other words, pronouncing the unstressed o as a is a key rule of Russian pronunciation. No matter how simple and basic it may seem, it's still a problem among many students at various levels. From my experience, auditory learners tend to cope with this difficulty better than the visual ones. Therefore, dealing with the words containing o would be easier if we pretend we're blind and pay attention to the sounds instead of the spelling.


So, whenever you see such a word, just close your eyes and listen to its pronunciation. Make sure you've created a solid auditory image in your brain so that you'll never forget to pronounce она́ in the same way as бана́н.


The key to correct pronunciation of such words is to find the stressed vowel in the word, pronounce it as it is (i.e. stressed a as a, stressed o as o etc.), and then treat all the rest of the o's in this word as a.


And now let's practice together (maybe with your eyes closed first!):


  • Э́то Поли́на. Она́ профе́ссор. Она́ стои́т у окна́ и говори́т, «Пора́ обе́дать!»


You can find the audio here.


2. Unstressed Vowels Reduction


The second Russian pronunciation mistake is also very common and plays a significant role in forming a noticeable accent. I'm talking about the reduction of the unstressed vowels that is a natural occurrence in Slavic languages but not very straightforward for speakers of other languages. The trick is to pronounce the stressed syllable stronger and longer than the unstressed ones which sound weaker and shorter.


Interestingly, the farther away the syllable is from the stressed vowel, the weaker and shorter its position is. Thus, sometimes those distant vowels are turned into semivowels or almost completely disappear. This is particularly common for the end of long multi syllable words with a stressed vowel somewhere in the beginning. I usually say that when speaking such words, Russians are so tired and out of breath that the last syllables are completely “eaten up.”


There are also some extreme cases when the word's pronunciation is being completely changed in fast speech. I'm sure you've heard some words like:


  • сейчас → [щас]
  • здравствуйте → [здра́с’т’и]
  • говорит → [гър’и́т]
  • сегодня → [с’од’н’и]


Let's practice together:


  • В понеде́льник Константи́н занима́ется в библиоте́ке.


You can listen to the audio here.


3. Consonant Devoicing


This phenomenon isn't a unique feature of Russian; it also takes place in other languages (for example German). Devoicing means that voiced consonants are changed into their unvoiced counterparts in certain positions. For those of you who aren't familiar with these terms, voiced consonants are produced by our vocal cords, and the unvoiced ones are just the noise coming through our throat.


You can check whether a consonant is voiced or unvoiced by putting your finger on the throat while pronouncing a consonant. A voiced consonant will make your vocal cords vibrate and your finger will feel this vibration. Try it with a d/t or b/p, for instance.


So altogether there are six pairs of voiced/unvoiced consonants in Russian that can be considered as partners or as “husband and wife,” if you like it. Here they are:


  • Б – П
  • В – Ф
  • Д – Т
  • Г – К
  • Ж – Ш
  • З – С


The question is in what position do the left counterparts become the right ones? There are three positions as follows:


  1. In the very ending of the word (two voiced consonants as well and the soft sign doesn't matter!):
    • хлеб [п]
    • лев [ф]
    • мог [к]
    • сад [т]
    • муж [ш]
    • роз [с]
    • мозг [ск]
    • съезд [ст]
    • дождь [шт’]
  2. Before another unvoiced consonant that “infects” its neighbour:
    • всё [фс]
    • второ́й [фт]
    • вчера́ [фч]
    • ло́жка[шк]
    • ло́дка[тк]
    • ро́бко[пк]
    • ска́зка[ск]
  3. Between a preposition ending in a voiced consonant and the following word starting with an unvoiced one:
    • в те́ннис [фт]
    • в понеде́льник [фп]
    • над тобо́й [a long т]
    • под по́лом [тп]
    • из парка [сп]


Let's practise all these words together here.



4. Consonant Voicing


This is actually an opposite process to the phenomenon described earlier in the third point. However, in this case the unvoiced consonants are affected by their voiced neighbours and as a result become unvoiced. This happens in the previously described positions B and C:


  1. Before another voiced consonant:
    • футбо́л [дб]
    • о́тдых [a long д]
    • сде́лал [зд]
    • про́сьба[з’б]
  2. After a preposition ending in an unvoiced consonant, if the following word starts with a voiced one:
    • с дру́гом [зд]
    • к бра́ту [гб]
    • от бо́ли [дб]


You can listen to the audio here.


5. Soft Consonants


In my experience, different students tend to have different problems with soft consonants, but almost everyone mispronounces the final soft consonants: the words ending in a soft sign. There are two opposing tendencies: some learners pronounce soft final consonants as if there were an и at the end of the word. The others sound as if there is no soft sign at all and produce a normal hard consonant.


  1. At the end of the word with a soft sign:
    • брать
    • спать
    • мать
    • соль
    • гость
    • дверь
    • конь
    • весь
    • топь
    • дочь
    • мощь


You can listen to the audio here.


Please note the only exception to this rule. In words ending with ЖЬ/ШЬ, you will always hear a hard sound because Ж and Ш in modern Russian are always hard and don't have a soft counterpart (unless part of a limited number of loanwords, mostly proper nouns like Жюли).


So, in ЖЬ/ШЬ, the soft sign for grammatical reasons designates the second person singular form of verbs, like ты говоришь, or when it's a feminine noun such as рожь.


Remember that there is no difference in the pronunciation of the hard Ж/Ш sound in the following words regardless of the soft sign:


  • туш – тушь
  • суш – сушь
  • нож – рожь
  • муж – ложь


Another problem with the pronunciation of soft consonants is the combinations with я, ё, е, ю, and и. To explain the different pronunciation of consonants, let's compare 3 positions:


  • МА – МЯ – МЬЯ
  • МО – МЁ – МЬЁ
  • МЭ – МЕ – МЬЕ
  • МУ – МЮ – МЬЮ
  • МЫ – МИ – МЬИ


You can listen to the audio here.


I think you've noticed that the first column contains the hard M sound. As for the second and the third column, there you've heard the soft sound. The difference between those columns is that the syllable with the soft sigh contains an extra sound which you can't see: a Y (yougurt) sound which would be transcribed as мья [м’йа].


In short, the soft sign in front of я, ё, е, ю, and и means that you have to pronounce the previous consonant softly and also make a Y sound.


Try to read the following words on your own and then check the audio.


  • Пот
  • пёс
  • пьёт
  • вол
  • вёл
  • вьёт
  • дам
  • дя́дя
  • дьяк
  • Пу́тин
  • пюре́
  • пью
  • ПЭТ
  • петь
  • пье́са
  • ЛЭС
  • лес
  • колье́
  • пыль
  • пил


You can listen to the audio here.


I hope you enjoyed reading this article and that it helped you analyze your pronunciation and detect the areas where you might be making Russian pronunciation mistakes. Try to listen and repeat after native speakers regularly and I'm sure you'll soon see positive changes. Don't get frustrated if some sounds don't come out as you want them.


Remember that the key thing is to be understood, and not to sound as if you were born in Russia. Think of an accent in a positive way! For example, it'll always bring attention to you if you one day find yourself somewhere over here ;)


Image Sources

Hero image by sovraskin (CC BY 2.0), edited by author.