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Learning to speak Russian

Updated on December 9, 2009
Capital
Lowercase
English Pronounciation
A
a
'a' in 'father' or in 'cart'
Б
б
'b' in 'bit' or in 'bed'
В
в
'v' in 'vine' or 'vice'
Г
г
'g' in 'go' or in 'good'
Д
д
'd' in 'do'
Е
е
'ye' in 'yet'
Ё
ё
'yo' in 'yolk'
Ж
ж
'g' in 'genre', 's' in 'pleasure', 'j' in 'Jean' or 'zh' in 'Zhivago'
З
з
'z' in 'zoo'
И
и
'ee' in 'me' or 'bleed'
Й
й
'y' in 'yes'
К
к
'k' in 'kitten' or 'kite'
Л
л
'l' in 'lamp' or 'love'
М
м
'm' in 'map' or 'made'
Н
н
'n' in 'not' or 'need'
О
о
'o' in 'more' or 'pot'
П
п
'p' in 'pet' or 'pilot'
Р
р
'r' in 'right', except rolled like they do in Scotland.
С
с
's' in 'see' or 'sand'
Т
т
't' in 'tip' or 'tick'
У
у
'oo' in 'boot' or 'brood'
Ф
ф
'f' in 'face' or 'find'
Х
х
'ch' in 'Bach'
Ц
ц
'ts' in 'sits' or 'ants'
Ч
ч
'ch' in 'chip'
Ш
ш
'sh' in 'shut' or 'shot'
Щ
щ
'shch' in 'ash church'
Ъ
ъ
hard sign
Ы
ы
'e' in 'roses' or 'i' in 'silly' or 'bit' (very difficult to pronounce)
Ь
ь
soft sign
Э
э
'e' in 'met' or 'bear'
Ю
ю
'u' in 'use' or 'you'
Я
я
'ya' in 'yard'

Lesson 1 - The Letters of the Alphabet

The Russian Language uses a variant of the Cyrillic alphabet and consists of 33 letters divided into 10 vowels, 21 consonants and 2 letters which do not designate any specific sounds but are instead used to as an indicator with regards to pronounciation for the letters around them. Each letter can be either capital or small and for the native English speakers the similarity of some of the letters can be quite confusing in and off itself.

Speaking/writing as someone with minimal exposure to other languages - I can safely say that memorization is your best friend and obviously (as in anything else) ... practice, practice, practice!!! One huge advantage of the Cyrillic language though is that you get strictly one sound to one letter (with some small exceptions) ... this does simplify it a bit for the English speakers.


Just the Vowels

Russian pronunciation rules are significantly easier, when comparing them to English.  For example, there are no words in Russian that sound the same but have different spelling like the English 'might' and 'mite'. By and large, Russian words will sound correctly if you simply read them letter-by-letter. Since the Russian language has only 5 distinct vowel sounds (the 'Hard' vowels mentioned below) the Russians decided to use the following vowel sound to indicate whether the preceding vowel is hard or soft.

Hard Vowels - а, э, ы, у, о

Soft Vowels - я, е, ё, ю, и ... are formed from their hard counterparts by adding an English sound of "y" at the beginning.

Rule 1:

In unstressed positions, Russian letter O is pronounced like unstressed Russian A. In other words, it sounds like English u in nut.

Russian
Phonetic
Translation
мама
mah-ma
mother
папа
pah-pa
father
вата
vah-ta
cotton
вода
va-dah
water
масло
mahs-la
butter

A as in Ah

This vowel is pronounced in two different ways depending on the stress. When stressed, it is close to the sound of the English word Ah, but shorter. When unstressed, it is pronounced like u in the word nut.

One point to keep in mind - the letter o is pronounced like unstressed a in the words вода and масло. This is an important rule of the Russian pronunciation (please see Rule 1).

Russian
Phonetic
Translation
кот
kot
cat
точка
toch-ka
dot
молоко
ma-la-ko
milk
стон
ston
groan
окна
ok-na
windows

O as in law

You already know that unstressed letter o is pronounced like unstressed a. But when it is stressed, is sounds like English aw in law. Practice these words:

Russian
Phonetic
Translation
дым
dim
fog
быт
bit
everyday life
был
bil
was
мыло
mi-luh
soap
мы
mi
we

Ы

This vowel does not have an equivalent in English. To get the Russian sound ы, you should place your tongue in the position right between the positions of English sounds i in kit and u in sugar. Then make a new sound of ы. Note that this sound is different form the English i in bit.

Please note - this one letter/vowel is extremely important and is used in quite a few different Russian words especially with regards to pluralization. It is extremely difficult to say (smile when pronouncing it as that will help) but well worth the effort

Russian
Phonetic
Translation
стул
stool
chair
губа
goo-bah
lip
музыка
moo-zi-ka
music
звук
zvook
sound

Y as in wood

The letter у sounds like oo in wood. In unstressed positions, it is pronounced a little bit quicker than in stressed positions.

Russian
Phonetic
Translation
этот
e-tat
this
Интернет
een-ter-net
Internet
темп
temp
tempo
шест
shest
pole

Э as in net

This sound is close to e in pet.

Keyboard Layout for the Russian Language

Provided to the right is the standard keyboard layout and also the Phonetic keyboard layout for those of you willing to print out and paste tiny stickers on your keyboard.

Another option is to use a 'virtual keyboard' ... this allows you to click on the appropriate letters and then copy/paste into your application. Some links to good virtual keyboards are provided above.

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