So you’ve made the decision to learn Russian. Congratulations and good luck! Russian is known as a very rich and expressive language, but that also makes it more complex for most native English speakers.
I’m sure you have your reasons, and that’s your business, not mine.
Learning to speak Russian is a bit different from learning to read or write Russian. While it is possible to learn how to speak a language without learning how to read or write it, this can be challenging (if not daunting) for a new student of any language, let alone Russian.
I’m not going to get into how to read Russian, or what the Russian alphabet looks like. You can check out this post on the Russian Alphabet if you’re interested. Since this post focuses more on how to speak Russian, we’re going to discuss the structure of sounds in the Russian language.
The Russian alphabet is comprised of 33 letters. I mention this because this means that the Russian language has about 33 sounds.
I say “about 33 sounds” because in every language, there are letter combinations that produce unique sounds not illustrated by letters. For example, there is no letter for the “sh” sound, or the “th” sound.
There are a few examples of this in Russian, but for the most part, the Russian language has about 33 unique sounds. Many of these are identical to sounds in English. For example, both languages have sounds represented by the following English letters: A, K, M, S, T, V. There are also sounds in Russian that are similar to sounds in English, but a bit different. The rolling R, is one example. Some people who are already know how to speak Russian may ask “why is there no “O” on your list”? Well, that’s because the “O” sound in Russian is like the “R” sound. It’s similar, but not identical to English. In Russian, the “O” sound is heavier; it’s not as light as the “O” in the English word “on”, but it’s not as heavy as the “O” sound in the English word “no”.
Additionally, Russian has two letters that expression two different version of the “sh” sound found in English. (For those curious, these are the letters Ш and Щ.) Now before you complain about how hard it is learning how to speak Russian, let me remind you that English is actually even worse in this regard.
Say these two words aloud: “them” and “thumb”. You probably never noticed this before, but these words have two very different “th” sounds. The sound in “them” is softer, and almost sounds like the “zh” sound in the English word “treasure”. The sound in “thumb” is much clearer and sounds like a true “th” sound. Don’t believe me? Say each word aloud and then swap the pronunciations of the “th” sounds in each. Sounds weird, right?
This is kind of how the “sh” sounds work in Russian, except that these sounds get their own letters, as opposed to English, which has two different “th” sounds, and no single letter for either of them!
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