102: Russian/Ukrainian Special Episode

Learn the most common difficulties Russian and Ukrainian speakers face when speaking English with an American English accent.


Learn the most common difficulties Russian and Ukrainian speakers face when speaking English with an American English accent.

Hi everyone, and welcome to this special episode of the American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and today's language-specific podcast is for Russian and Ukrainian speakers as well as teachers of those students.

I have a special guest with me today. Oksana is a former student of mine, and she is a native Russian speaker. Throughout this podcast, Oksana is going to demonstrate what very clear English pronunciation sounds like when coming from a Russian speaker.

Thanks for being here today Oksana.

Oksana: Thank you for having me, Mandy. I really wanted to take part in your podcast.

Before we begin, I want to be clear that while there are variations between how Russian and Ukrainian speakers pronounce English, they do sound quite similar to one another.

I also want to say that since the area covered by Russian and Ukrainian speakers is so geographically huge, speakers from different areas will have variations of English pronunciation. This episode is only about the seven broadest, most common issues.

Today we're going to focus on the following:

  1. The th sounds
  2. The h sound
  3. The l sound
  4. The r-controlled vowels
  5. The short a
  6. Comparing the short i/long e sounds
  7. Comparing the short o/aw sounds

I almost feel like it is a cliche to say that any language has issues with the English th sounds. Every language has issues with our th sounds. There is nothing to be done but to practice, practice, practice both the voiced and unvoiced th sounds. Make sure the air is traveling smoothly between your tongue and your top front teeth. Your tip of your tongue should be forward and close to the tooth ridge, that bony area behind your top front teeth.

Oksana, what was your error when you pronounced the th sounds?

Oksana: I always said, instead of voiced th, z sound. And instead of unvoiced th, something close to the f sound.

So you were probably pronouncing the word them as:

Oksana: *zem

And you were probably pronouncing the word think as

Oskana: *fink

Let's listen to how you pronounce those words now. I'm going to say the word, and Oksana is going to repeat it after me. Of course, all of the listeners should also repeat these words with Oksana.

Some of the most common voiced th sound words are the following:


And the most common unvoiced th sound words include:


Next, I want to talk about the sound that, to me, most quickly exposes a Russian or Ukrainian speaker - the h sound. To my knowledge, the h sound does not exist in those languages. The American English h sound is a very, very soft fricative. The air is constricted, though only a little, deep in the throat. Students need to be aware of just how soft this sound is in English.

Let's practice some words that begin with the h sound. Oksana is going to repeat these words after me:


The following sets of words are only different in the h sound. The first word begins with an h sound, and the next word begins with a vowel sound. Oksana is going to repeat both words of the pair.

heat, eat
hear, ear
hand, and

One issue speakers of Ukrainian and Russian face is the fact that our English l sound, especially at the beginning of a word, is the same, no matter which vowel sound follows it. This is not so in Russian and Ukrainian.

Listen carefully. In English, the l sound is the same in the words leak, lack, and lick as it is in the words lock, look, and luck.

Listen again:

leak, lack, lick, lock, look, luck.

I'll say those words again, and Oksana will repeat them after me:


Okay, issue number four for Russian and Ukrainian speakers is r-controlled vowels.

The four r-controlled vowels sound are:

schwa+r, as in the word stir
ar sound, as in the word star
air sound, as in the word stair
or sound, as in the word store

I hear two different inaccurate ways of producing these sounds from my Russian and Ukrainian speaking students. If the person learned English with a British accent, the r sound may just go away, and not be pronounced at all. This is due to the huge difference in pronunciation of the r-controlled vowels in American English and the Received Pronunciation of the United Kingdom.

For my students that have learned to include the r sounds in r-controlled vowels, I often hear my students create the r sound too far back in the mouth, creating too much friction.

The American English r sound occurs toward the back of the mouth, with the tongue bunched up, and the sides of the back of the tongue touching the top, back teeth.

The minimal set for the r-controlled vowels is the words stir, stair, star, and store.

I'll say those words again, and Oksana will repeat them after me:


Remember, the schwa+r sound, as in the word stir, has almost no vowel sound at all. To pronounce schwa+r, go straight from the consonant sound, in this case a t sound, into the r sound stir.

Issue number 5 is the short a sound. The American English short a sound is created with the mouth quite open, and the tongue forward. The center of the tongue is somewhat raised. Issues with this sound can again be influenced by past British English training, since they often do not place the tongue as far forward or the center of the tongue as high as Americans do. If the tongue is not far enough forward, or is too low, a sound similar to a short u or short o may be heard by native speakers of American English.

Oksana. can you say the sentence, "I bought a bus pass," in your original Russian accent? I want our listeners to notice your pronunciation of the word pass.

Oksana: *I bought a bus pass.

Thanks. Now say the sentence in your clearest American accent.

Oksana: I bought a bus pass.

Beautiful. Let's hear the difference again.

Oksana: *I bought a bus pass.

Oksana: I bought a bus pass.

Can you tell us what you did differently with your short a sound?

Oksana: I opened my mouth more and pushed my tongue forward.

Exactly. Now let's practice.

I'm going to say some minimal sets and Oksana is going to repeat them. These words are in the order of short a, short o, short u:

lack, lock, luck
stack, stock, stuck
cap, cop, cup

Issue number six for Russian and Ukrainian speakers is one of the most common among all non-native speakers, no matter what the first language is: substituting the long e for the short i sound. The long e sound (long e) occurs with the tongue high toward the front of the mouth. The short i sound (short i) occurs with the tongue slightly lower.

Oksana, how did you break the habit of saying the short i sound as a long e sound?

Oksana: I've started to differentiate the short i sound in everyday American speech and after that to practice saying the short i sound in minimal pairs with long e sound. For example, cheap c-h-e-a-p, and chip c-h-i-p.

Let's practice these sounds. The following words should be pronounced differently. First is a word with the short i sound, then the long e. Just as before, I'll say the word and Oksana will repeat it:

lick, leak
list, least
still, steal

And the final issue for Russian and Ukrainian speakers is difficulty differentiating between the short o sound (short o) and the aw sound (aw sound). The issue I hear most often is not opening the mouth enough for the short o sound. At the same time as the mouth is open, the tongue lies down inside the bottom teeth. To create the aw sound, the tongue is pulled back and while the back of the tongue is raised slightly. Most Russian and Ukrainian speakers use the aw sound too often, and rarely pronounce the short o sound, even when it's appropriate. This, again, may be due to previous British influence.

Listen to the following pairs. First is the short o sound, then the aw sound. Again, Oksana will repeat after me.

stock, stalk
cot, caught
tock, talk

Wow. That is really a lot of information for one podcast! I'll add links in the transcripts for this episode so you can get more information. You can find the transcripts at www.pronuncian.com/podcast. All of these topics can be a whole show by themselves, so it would be a good idea to dive deeper to get a more in-depth understanding.

Many of these issues have quizzes, which are available to subscribers, created to test your listening comprehension of these sounds. You can subscribe for as little as $15 per month with a 6 month subscription, and your subscriptions help support the creation of more content like this. In fact, without Pronuncian subscribers, Pronuncian could not exist. So, thank you for all of your support!

Oksana, thank you so much for helping us out with this podcast. You are a very brave non-native speaker, and you truly have my admiration.

Oksana: Thank you, Mandy. It was my pleasure.

This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening everybody.