What’s one sound in English that’s completely missing from Russian?
As a Russian speaker who’s learning English, you can probably think of at least one answer to this.
A lot of Russian students would say W or TH right away. These sounds show up in the most frequent words like “what” or “the.” Not surprisingly, they’re among the English sounds that Russian speakers mispronounce the most often – W and TH aren’t present in Russian, after all!
Let’s check out which pronunciation mistakes Russian speakers are the most likely to make (plus recommendations for how to fix each). By looking at English from the point of view of your native language, you can get a lot of insights about what to focus on with your own pronunciation!
How Hard is English Pronunciation for Russian Speakers?
For many Russian speakers, English pronunciation does take time to master, but it’s not the hardest aspect of the language. In fact, Russian students often say that grammar is more challenging because the word order is stricter in English and there are also more verb tenses.
Despite this, Russian speakers can struggle at first with certain consonant sounds like W and V. The Russian language also only has a quarter of the vowels that English does, and you’re probably used to speaking with a flatter tone compared to English’s more up-and-down pitch! All in all, it’s more straightforward to get to a level where you’ll be understood in English, but perfecting your pronunciation is difficult.
Still, you can gradually level up your English speaking skills as you grow your vocabulary. For a fun, all-in-one resource that’ll show you how to sound like a native speaker, the Creativa course on Mastering North American English Pronunciation has got your back. It features high-quality video episodes that tackle the most important areas of English pronunciation. These include topics that can be unclear or confusing for Russian speakers, such as saying the L sound and being expressive with intonation.
Each episode comes with a clear breakdown of the pronunciation points, along with helpful examples and language hacks that you can apply right away. Curious about it? Here’s a free video directly from the course.
10 Most Common English Pronunciation Mistakes for Russian Speakers
A helpful way to improve your English speaking skills is to take into account your native language – you’ll most likely carry over your pronunciation of Russian words into English. Here are the most common pronunciation errors made by Russian speakers:
1. Confusing W and V
The W sound doesn’t exist in Russian. But Russian does have a V sound, which is why Russian speakers can have a tendency to replace W with V when speaking English. For example, “wine” and “we” can become “vine” and “ve.” Sometimes this even works in reverse – V also gets replaced with W (“very” becomes “wery”) if you overextend.
Tip: Look closely at a mirror when you’re trying to pronounce the W sound. Your lips should be rounded! In comparison, a V sound only involves touching your upper lip with your bottom teeth.
2. Trilling Your R
Similar to Spanish speakers, Russian speakers can be prone to trilling their R’s because it’s how they pronounce R in their native language. However, the mouth positions for the English R and the Russian R are actually quite different.
For one, the tip of the tongue taps your upper palate with the Russian R. On the other hand, in the English R, your tongue is curled back a little with the tip suspended and not touching anything.
Tip: To break the habit of trilling your R in English, you have to say the R sound repeatedly in a wide variety of English words. Practice with words that have R in different positions, such as
raise, parrot, razor, fear, and treasure.
3. Bad vs. Bed
One vowel pair that Russian speakers can have a hard time telling apart would be the A in “mat” (/æ/) and the E in “met” (/e/). What often happens is they pronounce these two vowels in the same way: as an /eh/ sound. In this case, they might say “mat” as “met” and “bad” as “bed.” This is because /æ/ doesn’t really exist In Russian, so they can subconsciously replace it with the closest familiar sound!
Tip: To pronounce “bad” instead of “bed,” keep your mouth in the /e/ sound position, but then stretch out your lips as if you’re saying “aaaaah” and curl your tongue higher up. Once you get the hang of the individual sounds, play around with minimal pairs such as mat and met, pat and pet, and man and men.
4. Feet vs. Fit
Another confusing vowel pair would be /ee/ vs. /i/, such as in “feet” and “fit.” Unlike English, Russian doesn’t have long vowels and short vowels, so Russian speakers can easily merge these two vowels into one sound. This also happens with “pool” and “pull” – they can sound alike.
Although this is a common mistake for non-native English speakers in general, it can lead to miscommunication if the other person thinks you’re saying another word.
Tip: “Feet” is said with more tension than “fit.” While your jaw relaxes drops a little with “fit,” it feels more like you’re stretching your mouth to the side when you say “feet.” It’s similar with “pull” and “pool” – there’s more tension with “pool” because you’re rounding your lips into a tight circle.
5. Replacing Double Vowels
English has around 20 vowel sounds, but Russian only has 5 or 6! Many of the vowel sounds in English are double vowels – for example, the long A vowel sound is made up of E and I (/ei/). Since this isn’t as familiar to Russian speakers, they might sometimes say double vowels as single vowels instead. The long vowel oʊ can get shortened into O so “coat” and “soak” end up sounding like “cot” and “sok.”
Tip: Think of long vowels as consisting of two sounds. With oʊ, you’re starting with O then smoothly transitioning to U. Say O and U separately at first, then put them together (OU) until you can pronounce it in a split second.
6. Overusing the Dark L
One of the less obvious facts about English consonants is that there are two kinds of L sounds in English: the light L and the dark L. The light or regular L which is pronounced at the start of words or syllables, while the dark L shows up at the end. Russian speakers are much more comfortable with the dark L, so they can use it too often. This gives them a heavier accent when they’re speaking English.
Tip: When you pronounce the word “ball,” that’s dark L right there – it’s said further back in the mouth, and there’s tension in your throat. But with the light L, you’re touching the tip of your tongue to your front teeth. The light L is found in words such as “light,” “love,” and “lazy.”
7. Mispronouncing TH
A lot of English learners have a love-hate relationship with the TH sound in English because it’s not present in most other languages. It doesn’t exist in Russian either, so Russian speakers tend to replace voiced TH with T or D (“tere” or “dere” instead of “there”). Similarly, unvoiced TH can become S or Z (“sorn” or “zorn” instead of “thorn”).
Tip: It can feel a bit strange at first, but with the TH sound, make sure that the tip of your tongue is slightly sticking out between your teeth. If you keep your tongue inside your mouth, that’s when you might pronounce another sound altogether!
8. Muting Final Consonants
When some Russian speakers say the word “dad,” they have to put extra effort into pronouncing the last D because it’s more instinctive for them to say “dat” instead. Voiceless consonants at the end of words are a norm in Russian, which is why they might switch from D (voiced) to T (voiceless). This can also happen with other voiced consonants, such as “lab” turning into “lap” and “maze” becoming “mase.”
Tip: To avoid misunderstandings, pick a voiced consonant that you’re struggling with and say it on its own. Once you’re more confident, add a vowel to that consonant. If you’re focusing on D, you can practice with AD, ED, ID, OD, and UD before moving on to full words.
9. Overly Strong Vowels
You wouldn’t be able to tell from the spelling, but the E in “lemon” and the E in “item” don’t sound alike! The E in “lemon” is pronounced like a regular E, while the E in “item” is a schwa sound that’s more like “uh” (ahy–tuhm). Schwa sounds are considered as a weaker form of a vowel, and it’s one of the most frequent sounds in English. But Russian speakers might not notice when a word contains a schwa sound, pronouncing it as a regular vowel instead.
Tip: The schwa sound varies per vowel – for the specifics, check out our blog post about how to pronounce the schwa sound! The key is to look at word stress. Most vowels in unstressed syllables are pronounced as a schwa sound instead.
10. Flatter Intonation
Every language has a unique rhythm and melody. Russian has a much flatter tone than English, and Russian speakers can be unsure about which part of a sentence to stress because they’re used to a different word order. For one, instead of asking questions with a rising tone, they might lower their pitch instead towards the end of the question, which sounds strange to native English speakers.
Tip: You’ll still be understood even with wrong intonation, but you can come off as abrupt and impolite or other people might mistake your intent. If you’re looking to pick up standard English intonation, choose a video or podcast in English, then record yourself while repeating what the other person is saying. Look out for any major differences in pitch or stress!
Regardless of what their first language is, all English learners have pronunciation points that they have to spend time practicing. The ten common mistakes above point to the most challenging parts of English pronunciation for Russian speakers – from the W and R sounds to long vowels.
All In all, it’s like building a habit! The more exposure that you get to spoken English, the more that you’ll get used to recognizing and saying these new sounds.