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5 Very Good, Very Specific Tips To Learn Russian

Why is a Russian O sometimes pronounced like [a], how do you roll a Russian R, and which false friends should you look out for? Here are our best tips to learn Russian!
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5 Very Good, Very Specific Tips To Learn Russian

Learning Russian is no easy feat — for some, it seems downright exotic. To make sure you don’t give yourself away with a typical English (or American, or Australian) accent or by using a funny false friend, we’ve drawn up some of our best tips to learn Russian — brought to you by one of our in-house linguists!

1. Memorize The Cyrillic Alphabet

If you want to learn Russian, you’ll need to learn the Cyrillic alphabet — there’s simply no way around it. But don’t worry! It may look scary, but it’s not as foreign as it looks. The Cyrillic script actually shares the same ancestor with our familiar Latin alphabet: the Greek alphabet. You’ll probably notice that many letters look the same or similar, so the only hurdle will be readjusting how your brain associates shapes with certain sounds.

Plus, the Cyrillic alphabet is only 33 letters long (meaning it’s only seven longer than the alphabet you already know)! If you want a handy guide to learning the whole thing in a weekend, we’ve created a plan to commit it to memory in only two days. You can even speed up your learning time by using sticky notes!

2. Perfect (Or At Least Practice) The Passionate R

What would the Russian language be without its rolled or trilled R? For us English speakers, however, this R can be challenging as it simply doesn’t exist in English. But the Russian R doesn’t hide from anyone — you have to really get into it. The more passionate the better!

To make this sound, place the tip of your tongue against the alveolar ridge (just behind your upper front teeth). Now let out a breath of air, which should make your tongue vibrate in this position. A rolled Russian R is made up of around two to four tongue movements in this position, meaning that the tip of your tongue should quickly tap against this ridge two to four times. I personally find it easiest to roll an R when it comes after P, that is, a Cyrillic П. Practice with words вопрос (question) and проблема (problem) — and don’t be shy about it! If you exhale weakly, your tongue won’t get the momentum it needs for the vibration.

English native speakers should take this advice to heart: When speaking Russian, you need to free yourself from the vocal patterns of English and give your mouth free rein. If it feels unusual, or even sounds a little strange, that just means it’s working!

3. Master Your Soft And Hard Consonants

If you love consonants, then you’re going to love Russian. Part of the reason there are so many is because several of them come in two different forms: hard consonants and soft consonants. You only have to look at the Russian letter л to realize the difference: лук (pronounced quite like the English “look”) sounds very different from люк (pronounced similarly to the English name “Luke”).

Neither the л in лук or the л in люк are quite the same as the English L. The л in лук is hard (as is the case if a consonant is followed by у, а, о, э or ы). If a consonant falls at the very end of a word, then it’s also hard. To pronounce a hard л, start to pronounce an English L and then — without removing your tongue from behind your front teeth — try to make an [u] sound at the same time. You should hear a hard л with a noticeably deeper sound than what you’re used to.

The л in люк, however, is soft. You can recognize soft consonants by the fact that they’re followed by ю, я, ё, е or и, or the soft sign ь. To make a soft л, raise the front half of your tongue and make an [l] sound without letting it touch your teeth (in fact, you can swallow it a little). This makes the soft Russian л sound much clearer than its English or hard Russian counterparts.

4. Stress Will Change Your Vowels

Russian vowels are all about change! They love to alter their sound and slide around: The Е in балет (ballet), for example, begins with a short [i] sound before becoming an [e]; while the O in дом (house) has an [u]-like quality before it sounds like an [o]. This is why it can be so difficult to describe Russian vowels — they don’t like to be pigeon-holed!

One of the most important tips to learn Russian is this: There’s a big difference between stressed and unstressed vowels. Stressed vowels are elongated when spoken, while unstressed vowels are shortened (and in some cases can even lose their vowel quality). Did you know that the name Boris is actually pronounced quite differently in Russian? For Russian speakers, Борис is pronounced like [Baris], because whether O is pronounced [o] or [a] all comes down to stress. If the O is stressed, then you pronounce it [o], but an unstressed O changes the pronunciation. Words like Москва (Moscow) or Россия (Russia) end up sounding more like Maskva and Rassiya (the stress in bold).

So what about the famous “vodka” in Russia? In Cyrillic, it looks like this водка, with the stress on the O (so vodka stays vodka). But водка is derived from the word вода, where the O is pronounced [a]. The word simply means “water” and водка is derived from it. So although водка and вода are closely related, they sound completely different!

5. Watch Out For False Friends

Unless you want to look foolish on your first trip to Russia, you’ll want to learn which words are English-Russian false friends. For example, when you’re asked to fill out an immigration card on arrival (which you’ll have to hand back when you leave, so best to pick one up!), don’t make the mistake of listing every single one of your family members under фамилия! (That word would be семья, by the way.) Do, however, give your last name, which is what this word actually means.

If someone asks you where the nearest магазин is, don’t pull out a copy of Cosmopolitan. They’re actually looking for a shop, rather than a glossy publication. Meanwhile, if someone’s complaining about their шеф, this doesn’t mean they have enough money to afford a personal chef. They’re really grumbling about their boss. Finally, unless you really want to embarrass yourself, you shouldn’t ask if there are any презервативы in your food: Презервативы means “condoms,” not “preservatives.”

Want to learn more about the Cyrillic alphabet, Russian pronunciation and those pesky false friends?
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Uta Röhrborn
Uta Röhrborn grew up in Hesse and Lower Saxony before she followed the call of the East. She studied Slavic Studies and German in Jena, Germany, as well as climbed aboard many trains to Russia. After graduating, she worked in Uzbekistan, then taught Slavic Linguistics and Russian at the University of Jena. Today she lives in Berlin and works at Babbel (when she's not listening to chamber music or sitting on a mountain and looking off into the distance).
Uta Röhrborn grew up in Hesse and Lower Saxony before she followed the call of the East. She studied Slavic Studies and German in Jena, Germany, as well as climbed aboard many trains to Russia. After graduating, she worked in Uzbekistan, then taught Slavic Linguistics and Russian at the University of Jena. Today she lives in Berlin and works at Babbel (when she's not listening to chamber music or sitting on a mountain and looking off into the distance).
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