English and Russian both belong to the Indo-European family of languages and consequently aren’t radically different from each other. They certainly seem different at first glance, but in comparison with completely unrelated languages such as Arabic and Chinese, they really aren’t that far apart. Russians do, however, have their share of pronunciation difficulties. To find out what English sounds Russians struggle with, we will watch a short clip of a voice coach teaching how to do a Russian accent. The sounds he focuses on are the ones that Russian learners of English should work to reduce; after all, these are the more obvious sounds that give Russians their accent.
The first sound that the voice coach focuses on is /l/. The Russian tendency is to pronounce English /l/ very “dark” in all positions. Although he calls it “dark,” that does not mean it’s the same as “dark l” in English (the /l/ you hear in call). What dark means in Russian is that the back part of the tongue is raised towards the back wall of the throat. In English it’s very similar, but this raising of the tongue doesn’t occur quite as far back (it is raised towards the velum) and its articulation is more relaxed overall. Another difference is that in pronouncing English dark /l/, the native speaker’s tongue makes light contact (if any) with the roof of the mouth just behind the teeth, while in Russian the tongue presses against the teeth, not behind them. Not only do Russians pronounce this dark /l/ sound even darker than English speakers, but they also do it all positions (even where you would expect to find clear /l/).
/w/ and /v/
Perhaps Germany and Russia would not have gone to war back in 1941 had they known that they both have trouble with English /w/ and /v/. In accordance with what the voice coach pointed out, Russian speakers have trouble making a distinction between these sounds, and this isn’t necessarily because Russians aren’t physically able to make these sounds. This is more of a psycholinguistic phenomenon that occurs when two sounds are perceived as merely variants of the same sound. For example, English speakers perceive dark /l/ and clear /l/ as two variations of a single /l/. In the same way, Russians view /w/ and /v/ as two variations of one sound. Russians must therefore be made aware of this distinction, learn to hear the difference, and understand how to go about making these sounds. The most important thing to remember is that when pronouncing /v/, the lower lip comes into contact with the top row of teeth and turbulence is made by forcing air between them, whereas pronouncing /w/ involves only the lips and there is no turbulence.
/n/, /l/, /t/ and /d/:
These sounds all have near equivalents in Russian, but they’re different enough to sound “foreign.” It was already mentioned above that in Russian, pronouncing /l/ involves a speaker’s tongue making contact with the teeth. Consonants pronounced this way are called dentals, and in Russian, /n/, /l/, /t/ and /d/ all belong to this group. To hear the difference, try pronouncing the /t/ in Natasha with the tongue striking the teeth. You will note a different sound. This also applies to /n/, /d/, and /l/. However, students need to be made aware of the fact that in English, these four sounds are not dental, but alveolar, which is just a fancy way of saying that they are articulated with the tongue striking the roof of the mouth directly behind the teeth, not against them.
/æ/ and /e/ (/ɛ/)
Not mentioned in the clip we just saw are the various vowels and diphthongs that Russians find challenging. While a comprehensive treatment of the issue is outside the scope of this article, one vowel should be pointed out. One of the most noticeable vowels that Russian speakers struggle to pronounce is /æ/, which is the vowel in bat. Russians tend to replace this vowel with /e/ (really /ɛ/ in IPA script, but in the ESL world /e/ is often used instead, which stands for a different sound in IPA script), which is the vowel in bet. The words bet and bat could therefore sound the same. Teachers should encourage students to open their mouths a bit more to pronounce /æ/, which is the main difference between the two. It is also important that they listen to the differences between the two sounds.
The infamous English /r/
Russian /r/ is pretty easy to describe, as it is arguably the most common type of /r/ found in the world’s languages. It involves a tap on the roof of the mouth just like the /r/ in Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Ukrainian and many other languages. English /r/ (Note: The symbol /r/ is being used really loosely here; there are separate IPA symbols for all types of /r/, but their use would confuse readers) is also pronounced this way in Scotland, and some linguists think that this was the /r/ used back in Anglo-Saxon England. Another type of /r/ familiar to most people is the guttural /r/ found in French and German, but even in these two languages, the tap described above is still present in some dialects. In present-day English, the most common /r/ is the one found in American English, which is a lot like the tap in Russian, except that the tongue doesn’t make contact with the roof of the mouth. It requires precise positioning of the tongue, and, to get a better understanding of how it should be pronounced, students are encouraged to study diagrams and animated representations of the vocal tract and its movements.
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