Personal pronunciation difficulties

Discussion in 'Русский (Russian)' started by Samuelkristopher, May 12, 2013.

  1. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand

    I am new here, so maybe this isn't the right forum (everyone here seems to already speak Russian already :S)

    I am from New Zealand and live with my Russian-born girlfriend currently in Germany. While German didn't pose much difficulty in pronunciation, Russian has given me no end of grief from the first moment. I'm sure many have trouble with hard and soft consonants, but despite searchings for hours and hours on the net, I can't find a single bit of advice that has helped.

    A noteable one is Л and Л'. Personally, I articulate L the same way for every word that I speak - I experimented with hundreds of different words. But Liu (the girlfriend) says that my L is neither soft nor hard. To try and describe what I'm doing roughly - my jaw is in a shape as if I was going to say the vowel EE, as in "meet" or И. The tip of my tongue is pressing against the alveolar ridge just behind my teeth. The back of my tongue is raised slightly - not touching my palate but not flattened. I can't flatten it no matter how hard I try. I made a picture of what I think it looks like. Air passes through the sides.

    But if this is neither a hard or soft Л, then what is? While holding the tip of my tongue to the roof, I've shifted it forward and backwards as far as possible, but it always results in the same sounds. Some have said that the hard Л is like an American dark L, but after research it seems that a dark L is essentially just a light L with a different vowel before it.

    What everyone has probably mentioned here once or twice also is the notion of adding Y before the consonant, like "Lyooba" for "Liuba". But I know this is wrong and I'd rather learn the correct way if possible.

    At the end of the day, this is all just palatization, right? How do you palatize an M? Your lips are closed during the articulation, so the tongue position has absolutely no effect on the sound. The moment you release the lips, it ceases to be an M, so even if you had your tongue in a palatized position during the articulation, then aren't you essentially just adding an EE sound after the consonant? Место, then, is really just M + short EE + ES + TUH, as far as I can tell. Yet I *know* that this is wrong.

    If someone can cure me of this inability to comprehend the hard/soft concept, I will bow down and worship them forever and ever.

    P.S. My girlfriend jokes that New Zealanders are just genetically inferior. Joking aside, I discovered that my tongue has an extremely short frenulum (tongue acrobatics are impossible, I cannot curl it any direction, even upwards; I can't reach my nose, or even my little goatee under my bottom lip). From what I can tell it's impossible for me to pronounce the rolled R properly because of this, so I wondered if this would inhibit other sounds as well? Does anyone else have this ankyloglossia and manage to pronounce the full set of Russian sounds?

    Thanks for any and all help,

  2. Maroseika Moderator

    The most important question for you to answer is whether you can hear the difference between soft and hard consonants? If you can, sooner or later you will find a way to pronounce palatized consonants, and if you can't, you should first of all train to hear them. At least physiology has nothing to do with all that, of course, everybody can learn speaking any human language (and maybe some non-human...).
    As for the soft l, maybe it will be usefull for you to know that it is very much alike to Spanish and French l. To pronounce it you should rise the back of the tongue, and no more other additional movement of any of your vocal apparatus details.

    This method will help you when you learn pronouncing ы - another sound, difficult for English natives. To produce it you should pronounce и, but provide hard consonant before that. If it is soft, it will be just и. But I'm not sure reverse technology may work, i.e. producing soft l by providing pure и. However if by any chance you already know the difference between и and ы and can pronounce the latter, this really can help: just say ли and лы, and the first l automatically comes out soft.
    Last edited: May 12, 2013
  3. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    I can hear the difference for example in нет, or otherwise if there is a vowel following, but I don't know about by itself. I can't find any samples of the hard/soft consonants by themselves.

    The problem with palatized is that often my tongue is palatized when doing certain consonants anyway; in fact, I can't do it any way other than palatized. Examples are most of the stops, but none of them produce that "Y" sound that we associate with the palatized consonant - G, K, L, R (tapped), S, T, Z. Letters such as F, V, B, P, M and N, it is possible to raise the back of the tongue but it produces no noticeable difference from doing it normally (certainly no "Y" sound).

    I notice that with all of these sounds my tongue is very tense and it's difficult to move or adjust it while trying to keep a particular shape. As mentioned, I cannot flatten the back of the tongue while touching the ridge with my teeth. It just cannot curl in that direction.
    Last edited: May 12, 2013
  4. Maroseika Moderator


    I'm afraid you are too much concerned about technology and mecanics here. Maybe better start with listening the sounds and trying to reproduce it by any method? Believe, eventually you mouth will work exactly as described in the phonetics reference books.
    You may try the words pairs such as люк - лук, фляк - флаг, клик - клык, валёк - валок, and so on. Make sure you can clearly hear the difference when others speak these pairs.

    Well, let's wait for your natives here, I'm sure they know how to help you.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 12, 2013
  5. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    Ok, maybe you're right, I'm too carried away by mechanics. I only resorted to it though because I would sit for hours with Liuba and try to imitate her sounds, but every time they just sounded the same, neither hard nor soft.

    It's a nice song by Lili Marlen, but what am I supposed to be listening to? Is she only singing in soft consonants?

    As for "ы", Liuba did teach it to me, but the way she says it sounded more to me like a very fast "oo-ee" sound run together. I don't know what you mean by pronouncing и after a hard consonant - I don't even know what how to produce a hard consonant yet :(
  6. Maroseika Moderator

    She pronounces ideally soft l in Lili and Marlen, unlike usual hard l in 'last'. Do you see the difference? You never answered can you clearly hear soft and hard consonants in the Russian words and distinguish between them? If you can't, all the rest makes no sense.

    Then better forget it for now.
  7. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    Ok I listened to the song properly again, reading the lyrics, and I could not tell at all the difference between the L in "last" and the L in "Lili". It sounds exactly the same - just a quick tap. And besides, there is no Y sound after her "Lili", so how is it soft, if the soft-L is supposed to sound like it has that Y sound after it?

    If there is some difference then how can I possibly learn to hear it?
  8. rwils79 Senior Member

    Cairns, Queensland, Australia
    English - Australia
    Samuelkristopher, it took me a long time to master hard and soft consonants in the Russian language. My advice for right now is, focus on learning the language itself, and, over time, you should find it easier, as you get used to pronouncing words, I guess. I found it almost impossible to reproduce the difference between hard and soft consonants in Russian when I heard them in voice recordings on the Internet. I've been learning Russian for around 2 years (and am absolutely loving it), and I've learnt the most in the last year or so, including correct pronunciation... not to boast, но когда я говорю с носителями языка, они говорят, что я говорю чётко и почти без акцента (but when I speak with natives, they tell me that I speak clearly and pretty much without an accent).
  9. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    Ok, I'll try not to stress about it, but thanks for the encouragement. Liuba just happens to be one of those ones who cringes and tisks every time I don't sound like a native speaker. I appreciate she just wants me to excel but maybe I just need to tell her to relax a bit too.
  10. Maroseika Moderator

    Well, now it is clear why you can't pronounce them - you just do not distinguish soft and hard consonants by ear. And if so, it's like teaching a deaf-and-dumb to speak. It's not impossible, of course, but is very difficult.
    Of course, l in last and l in Lili are opposite, so that Russian words лук [luk] and люк [l'uk] mean different things (onion and manhole).
    Vowel after l in Lili is и (not sure what you take Y to mean).
    In brief, first of all you should train hear this difference, then pronounce. And one more thing, not to discourage you: in most cases you will be understood by Russian natives no matter how soft or hard you pronounce consonants, it's more or less like ignoring short and long vowels in English. So don't be obsessed with this point, just start learning the language.
  11. DrDIT

    DrDIT Senior Member

    Very good point! As a Russian native speaker I'm confirming that pronouncing a hard 'L' instead of a soft one is common for most native English speakers, while the Japanese are unable to pronounce any 'L' at all, be it hard or soft, and replace it with 'R' (which leads to funny things when saying something like 'presidential election' ))). Anyway, for the Russian ear these hard 'L's are not a big deal at all; you will be perfectly understood even if all your 'L's are hard. It's just a slight accent which sounds amusing and does not prevent communication.
    Last edited: May 13, 2013
  12. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    I think there is a way out of your problem. It is the simplified pronunciation, that gives you the chance to be understood, even if your pronunciation is not perfect.
    The first step is to learn how to pronounce the "hard" consonants:

    the following consonants er quite ike in English: B, P, F, V, G, K, M, N, S, Z,
    the following consonants er roughly like in English, but rather like in Italian or French: D,T, L (soft like in French "Liaison")
    the following consonants are roughly like in English: SH, ZH (like s in pleasure), CH, J, L (hard, like L in ball)
    the following consonants don't exist in English, you have to learn them: TS (like in German Zeit), R (like in Scottish, Spanish of Italian R), KH (like in Scottish "loch", German "Bach")

    The following soft consonnats you imitate by adding a "y" consonant sound after them:

    B' = b+y (bya, bye, byo, byu)
    D' = d+ y (dya, dye, dyo, dyu)
    The same with G', K', F', V', M', N', S', Z', R', KH'
    You don't add the "y" before "I" or "Y".
    The sound 'Y' you pronounce like English "i" in "bit".
    You will never master the Russian language, but you will not speak worse than Yassir Arafat spoke English. He was understood.
  13. rwils79 Senior Member

    Cairns, Queensland, Australia
    English - Australia
    Wow, way to spoil someone's hopes and dreams. :p
    Я уверен, что вполне возможно выучить этот прекраснейший язычок.
  14. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    Not very elegant to use words like rubbish.
    Read carefully the posting from Samuelkristopher, and you will understand why he never will actually master the language. But he may one day speak and communicate well if he works hard for a long time.
  15. Maroseika Moderator

    I also understood Ben Jamin this way first, but now see I was wrong.
    I think he only meant one could not master following that imitating technology.
  16. gvozd Senior Member

  17. Enquiring Mind

    Enquiring Mind Senior Member

    UK/Česká republika
    English - the Queen's
    Interesting and insightful discussion. For me, Maroseika hits the nail on the head with his comment in #10: Well, now it is clear why you can't pronounce them - you just do not distinguish soft and hard consonants by ear.

    I think that's the key; in order to master any foreign language you have to have a good ear (слух). Do you play any musical instrument, Samuelkristopher? Can you sing in tune?

    Mastering a language orally consists not only in pronouncing the sound of the individual words correctly, but also in hearing and being able to reproduce the appropriate phrasing and intonation of the target language. I know people who can write almost perfect English, but they are difficult and sometimes almost impossible to understand in speech or over the phone, because they retain the "sing-song" intonation and phrasing of their own language. Maybe it's something vaguely akin to trying to sing Россия — священная наша держава to the tune of the The Star-Spangled Banner ...

    Or maybe that's why we were given one tongue but two ears. Just a thought ...
    Last edited: May 13, 2013
  18. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    Interesting question Enquiring Mind - actually yes I do play both classical guitar and violin and can sing in tune. I don't know if I'm as hopeless as Ben Jamin says - I understand his sentiment but it's not like I've never learnt to hear and produce sounds that have never existed in my language before. My pronunciation of French and German unique sounds are correct as natives tell me (at least, according to the standard dialect), and I learnt French for a few years in high school and started German last year. That is, of course, without any concept of hard/soft consonants. The main reason for my exasperation and probably overdramatising my problems is that Liuba complains that I can't say her name properly and it really bothers her.

    She did mention an interesting point last night though - the English word "Lieutenant", which even I pronounce with an undeniable touch of Li-u-tenant, though it's not exactly a "Ly-u-tenant". To me, it still feels like I'm shaping the L the same way as I would "Lunatic", but I'm wondering if somehow this very slight "ee-oo" sound is a closer step towards it. Is it an example of a soft consonant? If so, then are "Duty"/"Music"/"News"/"Tuesday"/"Bureaucrat"/"Cute" etc, are they all examples of a soft consonant? Have I just been unable to see the wood through the trees?

    Thanks for all the replies :)
  19. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    Listen to the way the Chinese people pronounce "Liu" -- last name, perhaps a separate word as well. It is very similar. Then add "ba". By the way the L in Lyuba, and the L in Lili are two totally different L sounds (it may also depend in which language -- English or German), but they are not the same. The [iu] sound softens the L. The best way to get the Russian words correctly is to listen to the language as much as possible.
    Last edited: May 13, 2013
  20. viesis Senior Member

    Hi, Sam! Nice to see such a serious approach to phonetics. :)
    First of all I'd like to cheer you up a bit. Don't think about your short frenulum, it's not the point. I can hardly reach half of my upper lip, but still can pronounce palatalized consonants and R.
    Let me try to help you with L and M.
    When pronouncing hard L, back of you tongue should be raised slightly, middle part should be low, and the tip should be pressed hard to the back of your upper teeth (sometimes also to the ridge behind the teeth). The tongue should be quite strong. Don't try to raise the tong too much. Raise only the tip to the teeth so that it touches only the central incisors.
    Now soft L'. The front and middle part of the tongue should be pressed against the palate and upper teeth. It shoud be pressed hard around the dental arch (note that sides of the tongue are also pressed against premolars).
    I think that hard M is just the same as in English, so I won't dwell on that. Now about how we palatalize M. So, at the beginning the lips are closed, that's right. But the tongue position does have an effect on the sound at the moment you release the lips, despite this moment is short. Therefore, to get a palatalized M the tongue should be in palatalized position at the moment of release and shortly after that. Now about the tongue position for soft M: the tongue is slightly to the forward (as compared to hard M), the tip is at the lower teeth (central incisors), the sides are pressed hard against upper premolars.
    I hope the explanation helps.
  21. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    I think it should be unnecessary to explain to an English language native how to pronounce the Russian hard L, as they have a sound which is close enough, as the L in "ball".

    I think you have misunderstood my message. I never meant you are hopeless, but that you would not achieve a phonetic fluency of a native, or near native level. Most adult people learning a foreign language, especially one not closely related to their own never do. This does not preclude your ability to communicate effectively in, for example, Russian, if you work on it enough.
    By the way, it seems you just oversaw my phonetic advice to you. With all respect to the foreros that have tried to describe how to align your tongue and so on, I think that my approach is more practical,and can give you immediate results.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 13, 2013
  22. viesis Senior Member

    I did it just because Samuelkristopher said his L was neither soft nor hard, to explain the difference. It didn't do any harm, did it?
  23. Ben Jamin Senior Member


    No, I don'tvthink so, of course. I just was thinking about something more simple and effective: to relate the teaching to something the student already knows.
  24. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    Hey Viesis,

    I have tried doing this "front and middle part of the tongue should be pressed against the palate and upper teeth" exactly as you described, but Liuba says it still just sounds like a hard L. It doesn't sound palatized in the slightest. I can now differentiate between this "dark L" as americans call it, and my normal L, but Liu still says both are very different from the Russian way. She even showed me the inside of her mouth as she was doing it, and imitated as best I could, but there was no palatized sound unless I consciously tried to put a "Y" sound after it :(

    Thanks though. I know that I have to just forget everything I know about language, but since I've tried every possible shape for my tongue while making an L shape without success, at the moment it's more just pushing the boundaries of what I consider to be possible and impossible.
  25. Sobakus Senior Member

    Surprisingly, no one has offered any sites with audio of the actual pronunciation, here's a nice one (doesn't work with Opera browser), and another one.

    The single most important piece of advice I can give you: don't try adding any Y sounds to anything, it sounds truly horrible and won't help you much. Russians label English consonants hard and soft not because they are, but because of the following vowel. That's because in Russian, a large part of softness is contained in the vowel itself and not only in the preceding consonant. The English light L is the same sound in every position, and it certainly isn't any softer before an Y, as in value. In fact, no RP English consonant becomes softer before an Y. All of them are in the middle of this distinction. The dark L, however, is indeed the same as the Russian hard L, in RP it's the L not followed by a vowel. The French always pronounce the light L, so just say the word "will" with a French accent to hear the difference. Knowing this won't make your other L soft, however.

    Can you hear the difference in the links above?
  26. Maroseika Moderator

    I'm afraid I have to disappoint you: all these consonants are not soft; moreover, if they are really pronounced soft, it will sound as typical Russian accent, and Russians have a hard time learning pronounce them hard, because in Russian consonant + j is always soft.
    On the other hand, since your French prononciation is so good, why not to use it? Can you notice the difference between l in already mentioned French liaison and l in English live?
  27. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    Sorry Ben Jamin, I did read your advice and I appreciated it, I just wanted to understand what is really going on, rather than just the "adequate English substitute" for it. Sure, I'll probably have to settle with this for now, but ultimately I'd like to think I can learn to understand the concept behind a Russian hard/soft consonant and work towards emulating it. It's not so much about not wanting to sound like a foreigner - with important and devoted hobbies like language I just prefer to do things properly rather than half-heartedly.

    Thanks for your advice though, I didn't mean to undervalue it :)
  28. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    It was good up to the exclusion of hards and softs - I only went by the assessment of other speakers I spoke with, and perhaps they weren't 100% reliable. At the least, perhaps they weren't paying attention to my quality of consonantal hardness or softness. Thanks for the links Sobakus, it is quite useful. Unfortunately, despite any type of raised tongue during the articulation, Liuba says it's still not right. Most of the time I can't hear the difference between myself and the recordings either :(
    Last edited: May 13, 2013
  29. viesis Senior Member

    Oh, I think I understand. I've just tried to pronounce hard L with the tongue configuration for soft L. It is really possible, the result being some kind of hard L.
    I think Sobakus is right that the vowel contributes to softness of the preceding consonant. It's like the vowel should be more "narrow" to make the soft sound. Back of the tongue should be very close to the soft palate, which gives a very short Y-like sound immediately before (and with) the vowel. Well, I'd recommend to practice with "ли" first. Ask Lyuba to show you and try to achieve a similar sound.
  30. Sobakus Senior Member

    But do you hear the difference between the paired syllables? Surely they must sound different to you.
  31. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    The soft palate, right at the back? It ends up sounding very dark, as in the L in American "ball" =/

    I hate to sound like I have the attitude of failure but I hope I convey that I'm really trying hard to understand this. Again, I know it's not absolutely vital right at this stage but I'd love to wrap my head around it. Obviously it's physically possible. It must be a mental frame of mind, like a mindset. Perhaps I need to learn to have more control over my tongue as well.
  32. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    They do sound different, sure. But I can't really figure out why it's different. I'm trying to ignore and shut out my brain screaming at me that these are just consonants followed by a Y sound then the vowels. I can hear slight differences with the timbre of the consonants too, which is what I'm trying to focus on. But palatizing my tongue doesn't seem to produce these same results. I find T quite hard - the more I try to palatize it, the tip of my tongue is pulled backwards and it ends up sounding more like a TS sound, but still with no palatized sound.
  33. viesis Senior Member

    I get dark L with the middle of the tongue lowered. If I try to exaggerate soft L (just to understand the mechanics), I get my tongue completely up and stuck to the palate with a narrow gap at the back (between the tongue and the soft palate). Then I push air through that gap to get some noise - that's an exaggerated soft L. Exaggerated sounds are sometimes easier to pronounce.
    It's always difficult to master some unusual movements of the tongue. This is not vital, of course. I think the key to success is listening and talking, even if something does not sound completely right. :)
  34. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    Haha, no matter how hard I try, I can't get away from that dark L sound. I'm fairly sure almost my whole tongue is millimeters away from the roof of my mouth. It almost sounds like I have a serious speech impediment lol.
  35. Sobakus Senior Member

    Actually, the soft T is indeed partially affricated, it's even spelled with a ц in Belarusian. When palatalising a consonant, however, you don't pull the tip of your tongue, but raise the part right after it and spread it across the hard palate and the teeth. I can even pronounce them with the tip of my tongue touching the lower teeth.
  36. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    "but raise the part right after it and spread it across the hard palate and the teeth." What do you mean by this? I get an L shape if I spread the bit behind the tip of my tongue across the hard palate and the teeth. Is this what I want? I can't make any vowel sounds like this, it just sounds like "T-LLLLLL"? Maybe I misunderstood lol
  37. viesis Senior Member

    Absolutely correct. What I'd like to add about soft T (and probably any soft consonant) is that the tongue does not release quickly. The gap opens relatively slowly, hence the affrication.
  38. Sobakus Senior Member

    You won't get the L shape if you keep the tip pressed against the front teeth (and even between them a tiny bit). And not being able to pronounce a vowel while saying a T isn't surprising :p It's a stop consonant, after all.
    Last edited: May 13, 2013
  39. viesis Senior Member

    The part right after it should not be so large as for L. Just the middle (a small spot) should touch the hard palate, sides should not.
  40. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    Ah ok, so soft T =

    1. Tip of tongue touching upper teeth,
    2. Mid-tongue spread across palate and teeth
    3. Release a little bit slowly to affricate it slightly
    4. After the release, I touch the hard palate with a small middle spot of my tongue? Sorry to say that my tongue cannot fix between my upper teeth to touch the palate without touching the sides - either my tongue is too big or jaw too small :p

    I can try and record myself saying it, if it helps? I have a microphone.
  41. Sobakus Senior Member

    Close enough, but after the release only the sides of your tongue touch the molars (between them), otherwise you'll say an awkward Ц. Pretend you're trying to bite the sides of your tongue, and keep the very tip between the teeth to aviod slipping into the English semi-post-alveolar T. A recording wouldn't hurt!
    Last edited: May 13, 2013
  42. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    Here's my attempt at the L, after listening to the recording on Sobakus' link several times and trying to imitate it. On self-reflection, I feel that both my L's are more similar to the soft L than the hard one, but I know that for the second L (the one I try to make soft) I might be trying too hard to put a Y sound in there. I guess it probably sounds silly. Anyway, let me know if it helps you to give feedback.
  43. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
  44. viesis Senior Member

    1. correct
    2. It's not spread so much across the palate. The tongue is hard so it's middle is touching hard palate and does not get to the teeth (it may touch the teeth, but not pressed to them).
    3. correct
    4. After the release, the middle goes down, but stays close to the roof.

    Please make a record. It may be helpful.
  45. viesis Senior Member

  46. Sobakus Senior Member

    Yes, your hard L isn't hard enough and your soft one really has a Y sound to it. I suggest you first try to harden the former by adding a [w] sound to it. In many languages, and in Cockney accent as well, it turned into a [w] or even an [o]. The middle of the tongue is not just lowered, it's vertical between the teeth.

    I'm sorry but it absolutely is pressed against the molars. You are talking about a T and not an L, right?
    Last edited: May 13, 2013
  47. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
    Exactly! I don't know where this phantom palatal "Y" sound is supposed to come from!!! :p It's like the myth of Atlantis to me, I know it exists I just can't figure out how to get there!
  48. Samuelkristopher Member

    English - New Zealand
  49. viesis Senior Member

    Not bad. :) Try not to put Y sound in the soft L.
  50. viesis Senior Member

    Try not to labialize it.

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