When you are starting to learn Russian, it’s a lot of fun to meet Russians and try to talk to them in Russian. This is usually a very pleasant way to make new friends.
However, when you are just starting out, it’s really hard to tell the difference between a Russian accent and a French or German accent. Even after you are fluent in Russian, it might still be hard to tell the difference between someone speaking English with a Russian accent or a Polish accent.
Say You Like Their Accent
You need to do something to let people know you are friendly. People whose native language is Russian can be a little bit afraid to tell you where they originally were from because immigrants and travelers sometimes aren’t treated very well. To reassure them that you mean well, here’s what to do.
Say something like, “I like your accent; where are you from?” This lets them know you are friendly, and it lets them know that they should tell you about growing up in Moscow, not about the apartment where they now live in New York City.
This Works in a Lot of Places
I’ve used this method to meet Russians everywhere from Hawaii to New Zealand to London. It’s disarming, and it’s a good way to switch to talking in Russian.
Of Course You are Being Honest
Can you honestly say that you like their accent? Of course, you can. You will soon be speaking Russian with an accent (at least at first), and it’s high time that you develop a love for interesting accents. It’s a great way to meet Russians outside of Russia.
Would You Like to Learn Russian?
If you think you would like to learn Russian, it’s a good idea to test out several different programs to see which one works for you.
I tell my friends that they should try two different programs for 30 minutes each, and then buy the one where they can remember more Russian several days later.
When you speak Italian, you need to open your mouth wide. When you speak American English, you need to open your mouth about halfway. But when you speak Russian, you need to keep your mouth mostly closed.
One of the most important pieces of advice I can give you when you are learning Russian is to keep you mouth closed! If you are a native speaker of English, it turns out to be very hard to keep your mouth closed enough to easily say Russian words. Here’s how to make it easier.
Get a Mirror Then Do This
1. Put a fingernail (not your entire finger, just the nail) between your front teeth and lightly bite down on it. That’s about the most your mouth should open when speaking Russian.
2. Get a mirror and watch yourself in it to make sure you are keeping your mouth closed. It’s a lot of fun to practice with a mirror as long as you have a good attitude. You can feel like a kid again!
3. Try biting down on a toothpick and saying your Russian words with the toothpick between your back teeth. This will keep your jaw in the right position. With the toothpick between your teeth, try to practice your Russian words. Focus on moving your lips and your tongue to make the sounds come out right.
After you get the idea of how to keep your jaw closed, it will be okay to move your jaw a little when you are speaking Russian. However, Russian is mostly a “mouth closed” language.
If you are just starting to study Russian, you should know that the Russian alphabet will make learning Russian easier, not harder. It’s fun, and it’s not hard to learn.
However, I don’t recommend that you start learning Russian by learning the alphabet. That’s not a good place to start. First learn to speak and understand Russian fairly well, and then learning to read it will be easy.
To understand the Cyrillic alphabet, you need to know what an alphabet is.
An alphabet is a method for writing sounds on paper. That’s all it is—nothing more, nothing less.
How good the alphabet is can be measured in part by how consistently a particular symbol represents a particular sound. If your alphabet has very few exceptions, it’s a very good alphabet. If it has a lot of exceptions with one symbol sometimes making many different sounds, then it’s not such a good alphabet.
However, there is one big problem that gets worse as time goes by. All living languages evolve by importing foreign words. Dead languages (like Latin) don’t import new words. No one speaks Latin anymore.
Living languages all import foreign words, and when they do, they have rules for how they import words. That’s not something you are likely to have thought about unless you are a student of languages. English has the following rule for importing foreign words. If the word is coming from a language that uses basically the same alphabet as English (the Latin alphabet), English keeps the foreign word’s spelling and tries to copy the foreign pronunciation.
This rule results in the English language becoming less and less phonetic with every passing year. However, if you think English is bad, French is far worse. Modern French is essentially two different languages: spoken French and written French. English is also quickly evolving to become two different languages.
Other languages that have their own alphabet (like Russian) have a different rule for importing foreign words. Their rule is to try to copy the sound of the foreign word, then spell the word phonetically with their own alphabet. The result is that these languages stay phonetic, while languages that use an alphabet that is common to many other languages do NOT stay phonetic.
The Russian alphabet keeps the language phonetic. The fact that you, as a student of Russian, must learn a different alphabet (which is really easy) keeps the Russian language one simple language. A little bit more effort up front saves a lot of effort learning to read later.
Do you know how English language dictionaries have words marked in funny characters that tell you how to pronounce the word? Well, Russian is so phonetic that they don’t really need special characters to tell you how to say the words. In fact, most Russian dictionaries don’t have special phonetic markings to tell you how to pronounce the word like English dictionaries do.
Which language will be easier to learn to read and understand: Czech or Russian? Czech uses the Latin alphabet (more or less) while Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. For most people Russian would be easier to learn because it’s more phonetic. The Russian alphabet is easy to learn.
Another thing that makes learning Russian easier is that the Cyrillic alphabet is optimized for Russian. Think of it as a special-purpose tool instead of a one-size-fits-all tool.
Before you start studying foreign languages, you tend to think that every language has a way of saying the things that you currently say in your language. However, this really isn’t the case. What you will find when you learn another language, like Russian, is that it has ways of saying some things that simply cannot be expressed in English, and also that it lacks ways of saying things that we commonly say in English.
This affects how people behave. If you have a word for something, you can encourage it, promote it, and even write songs about it. You see, words are tools that we use for thinking, just like a hammers are tools that we use for pounding nails. If your language lacks a word for something, it is very difficult to make whatever that is a big part of your life.
So what is the Russian word for fun? Well, there really isn’t one. There is a word for pleasant and a word for interesting, but there really isn’t a Russian word for fun. Now Russians do know how to have fun; for example, Russian parties are generally a lot more fun than the typical American party, but since they don’t have a word for fun, fun isn’t something that their society focuses on, and it isn’t as big a part of their lives.
So when you learn Russian and/or travel to Russia, you will probably have a lot of fun, but there is no Russian word that exactly describes it.
If you are a native speaker of English who is just starting to learn Russian, you may not know how to roll your Rs. Russian has two different rolled-R sounds. One is a trilled rolled R, but the more common rolled-R sound is a lightly rolled R that you might use in the Russian word “ruble.”
If you are having a hard time with this sound, start by saying the phrase “Prince of Prussia.”
Then change the phrase to put a lettter D in between the P and the R, and say it again like this: “Pdrince of Pdrussia.”
Say this over and over again, trying to say it faster every time. Keep your jaw closed to the point where you can only fit a fingernail between your back teeth while you do this.
These other exercises should help you learn to roll your Rs as well:
The English words butter and ladder, when pronounced with a normal US accent, produce the same tongue motion that is used to produce the rolled “R” in Spanish.
Say the word “butter,” then say the word “ladder”.
Feel the tongue on the inside of your mouth “flip up” during the second syllable, barely touching the gum above and behind the top row of teeth, almost touching the roof your mouth.
Now say each word faster, “Butter, butter, butter, ladder, ladder, ladder”.
Continue saying the words faster and faster. If you prefer one of the words, you may use it exclusively. Eventually you’ll produce a sound like: Bu””””” (the “”” representing the trilling motion), or La””””. Then try the “RR” in Spanish (ER”””RE).
Try saying, “Los barriles y borregos van a Monterrey en ferrocarril.”
Spanish tongue twister: “Erre con erre cigarro. Erre con erre barril. Rápido corren los carros sobre los rieles del ferrocarril”
Do You Want to Learn Russian?
Keep reading the page below for more methods of learning how to roll your Russian R’s, but if you want to learn Russian you may want to try my personal favorite program.
It’s very good at teaching you to speak and understand the basics.
Try the dR method which is supposedly the only way Lenin was able to “fake” the trill sound. It is similar to the pD Method.
Try saying “Dracula” and see if it helps you roll the R by putting a D in front of it. Touch the tip of your tongue to the bottom of your two top front teeth. Then when say “Dracula” and notice the tongue moves loosely but quickly from the tips of your teeth to the roof of your mouth.
Practice using the R in word-initial combinations as “dr-“, “tr-“, “br-“, “pr-” – it is much easier to pronounce in those positions. Once you can do that, work on dropping the initial consonant.
The key to rolling Rs is creating the proper vibration. The vibration starts at the back of the tongue and moves toward the tip of the tongue (like a wave). If you can produce the German “acht” or Arabic and Yiddish pharyngeals and basically clear your throat, then you can roll R’s. This seems counter-intuitive because rolled R’s are pleasing to the ear – whereas pharyngeals are harsh. The vibration is the key and the same technique is needed to roll R’s. Remember: The air passing through your larynx and mouth makes the sound.
Start by practicing that clear-your-throat “ckh” sound. Try to turn it into a “grr”. Don’t be afraid of sounding ridiculous. Do whatever it takes to make the roof of your mouth vibrate. (This skill also comes in handy when speaking Chewbacca and making a variety of animal noises.) Practice getting the feel for that vibration. Your throat might get a little sore at first. You’re working out “new” muscles and they’ll get stronger with use.
Press the tip of your tongue against the alveolar ridge behind your teeth. Your tongue touches the right spot when you finish saying the letter L and the letter N. Say L or N and at the end of the sound keep your tongue firmly in place. Try to say “girl” and “hurl” without removing the tip of your tongue from your alveolar ridge. Use the clear-your-throat vibration to start the word and try to form the vibration into a rolled R. Initially, use the “G” sound to kickstart a rolled R. At first, you will sound like a strangled tiger (grr, grr, grr), but you’lI start rolling Rs. Eventually you will be able to purrr using purrrfectly rrrrrolled Arrrrrrrrrrrrrr’s. (like a pirate)
Practice and refine. Once you can get your R rolling, experiment with the position of the tip of your tongue. To move the sound toward the front of your mouth, add the “Z” sound in front of your R. Practice adding vowel sounds (ah, ee, uh, o, oo) before and after the rolled Rs.
This assumes that you already know how to blow a raspberry / do a Bronx cheer using your tongue against the underside of your top lip. This sound is technically known as an “unvoiced linguolabial trill”. There is a great deal of similarity between a raspberry and a trilled R. Both sounds feature the tongue vibrating against the underside of another part of the body (the lip / the roof of the mouth).
First, blow a raspberry in the regular manner
Add voicing to the sound, simply by activating your vocal cords
Slowly lower your jaw as much as possible while allowing the raspberry to continue. Don’t lower the jaw so much that the raspberry stops.
As quickly as possible, try to move the tip of your tongue to just behind your front teeth. Don’t change anything else you are doing — either in your breath or your voicing. Try to make the movement solely about the tip of the tongue, not involving any other part of the tongue.
If you do this right, you will now be trilling an R!
Push Trill Method
This method may help you understand the trill differently and get a feel for it. It does not involve any word drills and simply requires you to move vibration from the back of your throat to the front of your mouth.
To begin you need to be able to start a vibration in the back of your throat. This is a different type of trill that is much easier for many people. It definitely doesn’t sound pretty (think of a clearing your throat kind of sound, you’re almost acting like you’re sick and your throat is swollen up and congested), but it works as a great stepping stone to the alveolar trill that we want.
Once you can get this trill loud and constant, hold it and blow a small burst of air through your mouth. Feel the different parts of your tongue vibrate and focus on making the tip of your tongue vibrate. Keep it loose and either touching or close to the alveolar ridge (ridge behind top gums).
Little by little, work on getting to know how the alveolar trill feels. Work on doing it with less and less air, and then try to work it into words that require a trill.
“Vision dream” Method
This method will help you achieve your first rolled “R”. It was developed by, and worked successfully on, a native speaker of English who had not successfully rolled a “R” in over 20 years of trying. This method uses the English phrase “vision dream”.
Take a very deep breath.
Say “vision” so that the central “zh” sound is very drawn out, lasting 3 to 4 seconds, like this: vizhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhion.
Make a huge crescendo (increase in volume) while you’re on the zh sound. It may also help to raise the pitch gradually.
Make the final syllable of “vision” very short, but continue to get louder. By the time you say the final “n” of “vision” you should be making the loudest sound you possibly can.
Coordinate the rest of the phrase. The “ion” of “vision” should only last a fraction of a second, before you launch into the “dr” of “dream”. The “dr” of dream should be the climax of the phrase. You should be putting so much energy into your sound at this point that you may well feel somewhat faint.
Switch to the “dr” of dream and try to relax your tongue, especially the tip, making it as floppy as possible. At the same time blow air out of your mouth as hard and fast as you possibly can.
Allow the tip of your tongue to be thrown forward by the intensity of your breath into the back of your front teeth.
Allow your tongue to “bounce” back and forth between the front teeth and the gum ridge.
Know that you have successfully rolled your “R”s if the tongue bounces back and forth with a sound that feels a little like “dagadagadagadaga”. This may not happen the first time you try it — if so don’t be discouraged!
Continue trying if it doesn’t happen the first time.
If it doesn’t happen the first time, try putting your tongue in different places for the final “n” of vision. You could try putting the tongue right against the teeth, against the ridge in the roof of your mouth, or anywhere in between.
If you are still having difficulty, try some of the techniques below for reducing the volume required to trill your “R”s–these may also help you to trill it the first time.
Once you have done the roll once, the second step is to achieve the same effect at lower volume levels. Most people who don’t learn how to roll their “R” during childhood build up tension in the tongue over their lifetime (in the same way that people who have desk jobs and don’t stretch regularly tend to build up stiffness in the hips and hamstrings). The high volume and energy of this method helps to overcome that stiffness. Once you have identified the parts of the tongue that need to be flexible you can release the tension so that less energy is required.
Know that the first time you achieve a rolled “R” it may be accompanied by sounds in the back of your mouth, such as a French (uvular) “R” or a velar fricative as in German “ach”. Don’t worry about this: the unwanted activity will go away naturally as you get more comfortable with the roll. Two ways to help are to yawn just before you start the “R”, and to smile broadly during it.
Another exercise that is useful is to alternate between uvular (French/German) R and alveolar (Spanish/Italian) R. Start with the uvular R and then “blow” it to the front of your tongue with a sudden gust of breath. Then repeat.
Consider the bilabial trill. This is the “Brrrrrr” sound that people make to indicate that it is cold: it’s made by closing the lips lightly and blowing between them so they flap against each other. Alternate the bilabial trill with the alveolar trill, trying to imagine your tongue flapping against your gum ridge with as much ease and flexibility as your lips have when they flap against each other.
Try mentally focusing all the energy from your breath on and just in front of the alveolar ridge (right in your upper mouth just behind the front teeth). Simultaneously imagine that the front of your tongue has a natural trilling ability, and that simply dropping it in the breath stream will cause the trilling to be activated without any effort.
Try to roll it in other situations. In roughly ascending order of difficulty:
tr — say the word “trip” like a Scotsman. It may be easier to start with “drip” and gradually reduce the voicing just enough until you say “trip” instead.
gr — say “that’s GReat” with a Scottish accent. If this is difficult, try producing the “G” sound further forward than usual, against the hard palate rather than the soft palate. It may also help to imagine that the “G” sound is just a relatively unimportant prelude to the “R” sound.
kr — “If it’s not Scottish, it’s KRaaap”. As with “Gr”, it may help to make the “K” sound more forward than usual.
pr — say “prego” as in Italian for “you’re welcome”
after a short vowel, as in burrito
at the beginning of a word (this is the hardest of all)
Don’t give up!
The trill is not easy for any language speakers! It is most often the last consonant sound learned by children in trill languages, and most languages that contain trills also contain words describing people who cannot do them.
A famous example is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), father of the October Revolution, founder and leader of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1923. Lenin was unable to create the alveolar trill, which is rather unfortunate when you are the leader of the Rossiyskaya Sotsial-Demokraticheskaya Rabochaya Partiya (the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party). So, don’t feel so bad if you cannot get this easily.
The specific trill consonant you need to master depends on the language you are learning. Trills are common in many world languages from those widely spoken to obscure dialects. Trills are present in Dutch, German, Spanish, Thai, Russian, Italian, Armenian, French, Croatian, Slovenian, Estonian, Finnish, Norwegian, Polish, Tagalog and Arabic, to name just a few. In each language different kinds of trills are made with different parts of the mouth. For example, in German the rolled R sounds is actually a Uvular trill, produced at the back of the mouth rather than the front.
The sound is made because of the Bernoulli’s principle, an aspect of physics which defines the movement of fluids and gas over different shapes, and one of the principles of flight. In other words, the shape of your tongue will partially resemble an airplane wing, with the exhaled air passing over the top of the stiff, shaped lower tongue and vibrating the tip against the ridge like the flaps on an airplane wing.
Another method of preparing your tongue for the rolling of Rs is surprisingly simple: practice repeating the following sounds in rapid succession: tee-dee-va. Do this in your spare time, such as while you are driving. In as little as a month, you’ll be rolling Rs with ease.
Relax, relax, relax!!! If you have problems with trilling your “R” it is likely that you are failing to relax your tongue sufficiently. The tongue should be as relaxed as possible, with just enough tension localized in the tip of the tongue to keep the tip touching the alveolar ridge while the air is flowing through.
For example, many native speakers of English tend to tense the root of the tongue when speaking (the root is the part of your tongue that you can feel if you put your fingers as far back in your mouth as possible until you are about to gag). You cannot roll an “R” if the root of your tongue is too tense, because it will make contact with the back of your throat and obstruct the airflow.
A good exercise is to do a nice, long yawn, trying to relax the tongue as much as possible while keeping the tip of the tongue gently touching the alveolar ridge.
Another good exercise is to roll on a large exercise ball so that your head is dropping down from your neck. This will tend to create more space in the back of your mouth and to relax the root of your tongue.
A good “visualization” exercise is to imagine that you are a puff of air coming up from the lungs, going over the root of the tongue and headed for the tiny gap between the tongue tip and the alveolar ridge.
Use a mirror! Often, it is difficult to tell by feel alone whether your tongue is in the right place.
The alveolar trill is difficult for native English speakers because, with the single exception of some Scottish dialects there is no use of the alveolar trill, or many trills at all, in English. Many trills, the alveolar trill being no exception, use muscles in the tongue and mouth we, as native English speakers, simply do not use often for speech. It is the flexibility in your tongue and your ability to shape your inner mouth that make the trill possible.
If you go to the bookstore and buy to help you learn Russian, it will probably make a big deal over the common words in Russian and English. Don’t waste your time.
Yes, I could sit at my computer and make up a long list of Russian words that sound roughly the same in Russian and English and have more or less the same meanings. You probably know some of them already.
Words like vodka, bazaar, and balcony are common to both Russian and English and sound more or less the same in both languages. Some words like airport are both based on the English word, but the Russian version sounds so much different that you probably won’t be able to understand it at first.
Most Common Russian/English Words are like Vodka – You Don’t Need it Every Day
Unfortunately, except for a few words like mama and papa, the common Russian/English words won’t help at first. The common words are mostly NOT in the core vocabulary that beginners need to learn.
Start With Important Phrases Like: “I Want That.”
So when you are a beginner, ignore the common words in both Russian and English. Start with phrases you will need right away like, “Where’s the bathroom?” and “I want that.”
That way you won’t loose your enthusiasm, when you find out that the Russian/English words you learned just aren’t needed that often.
Good News for Intermediate/Advanced Russian Students
When you finally get to the stage where you can carry on a conversation in Russian and are getting a feel for how Russian pronunciation works, then suddenly you start hearing these words everywhere.
Both English and Russian are what linguists call Indo European languages, so there really is quite a lot of commonality.
So the commonality between Russian and English IS good news for people who already speak English; it just won’t help you very much in the beginning.
So start your Russian learning by learning important Russian phrases. Later as you become more advanced you will be pleasantly surprised that many Russian words are also English words.
Learning Russian is sort of like taking up a new sport. If you haven’t been keeping the muscles used for your new sport in good shape by playing some other similar sport, it’s very likely that you will get very sore the first few times you do it.
You have muscles in your mouth that you…
…simply don’t use when speaking English, and believe me, they will get sore when you try to use them to speak Russian.
Many of my friends who have learned Russian told me that their mouths got sore when they first started to speak Russian, and mine did too. It’s not a big deal, and it shouldn’t keep you from learning, but it may be a sensation you notice that lets you know you are doing something right.
If your mouth doesn’t get sore when you first start to speak Russian, it’s possible that you already have well-developed mouth muscles from learning to speak Polish or some other language.
If the only language you can speak is English and your mouth doesn’t get sore at first, then it’s very likely you are doing something wrong. You probably are using an English accent. Try concentrating harder on making your words sound exactly like the native Russian speakers you are copying.
The soreness isn’t a big deal, and it won’t last very long. But look for it. It can tell you if you are doing something right or wrong.