My name is Natasha and I’m a qualified Russian teacher and native speaker.
Usually I teach Russian to English-speaking people, so I would like to share with you some common challenges and mistakes in learning Russian. I know that a lot of people think that Russian is too difficult to learn, but I think it’s not as difficult as some people say. There are, however, some points that are hard to understand or learn, but I believe that this guide will help you avoid many mistakes and improve your Russian language skills.
The Cyrillic Alphabet
Firstly I would like to start with the Russian alphabet, which is Cyrillic (not Latin), and consists of:
- letters that have the same or almost the same writing and pronunciation as in the English alphabet (for example, K, O, etc.)
- letters that look like English letters but sound different ( for example, B, Р, H, etc.)
- letters that look unusual, but have a familiar sound in English (Б, Г, Д, Л, etc.)
English-speaking students have difficulties with the last two categories, especially when a letter is written the same as in English but has a different pronunciation. Thus, students often pronounce the Russian letter P [r] as English P [p], or Russian B [v] as English B [b], etc. (Example: the Russian male name Вова sometimes can be read as [boba] instaed of [vova]; the female name Нина some students would read as [hiha] instead of [nina] and the word ‘река’ (river) some would read as [peka] instead of [reka]).
English-speaking students have difficulties with the pronunciation of vowel sounds я [ja], ё [jo], e [je], ю [ju]. In addition, a common mistake is not hearing the difference between the Russian sounds [u] and [ы]. For example, in the beginning students cannot tell the difference between words such as «быть» (to be) and «бить» (to beat). At first it is difficult to pronounce the sounds [u] and [ы] separately. The main reason for this is the absence of the sound [ы] in the English alphabet.
English-speaking students find it hard getting used to the lack of aspiration (non aspiration) in the pronunciation of Russian consonants. That’s why they often read the Russian word дом [dom]- house with English aspiration or breathing and it ends up sounding more like [tom] to native speakers of Russian. Also, the palatalization of Russian consonants may be difficult, because usually we do not divide English consonants into soft and hard. But in Russian it is a very common phenomenon (стал [stal] – became; сталь [stal’] – steel) and it changes the meaning of the word completely. So students need more listening and pronunciation practice to understand the difference between soft and hard consonants.
Natasha Fisher, Former LOS Consultant