I understand that the difference between "щ" and "ш" is (roughly) the difference between "shya-" and "sha-". But how do you differentiate "щ" and "шь"? For example, I always differentiated, for example "н" and "нь" as "na-" and "nya-". By that logic, to me, "щ" and "шь" sound the same when I pronounce it. Its probably not a very important distinction in practical usage, but I still want to understand why the sounds are different. If anyone can find an audio/video clip illustrating the difference, it would be great!
The point is there are at least 2 ways
щ can be pronounced and there is no difference in the pronunciation between
First, let us have a look at
ш. This sound is different from the English "sh" in the word "ship" in that respect, that it is non-palatalized, it is always 'hard' (Russian 'твёрдый'). The fact, that
ь is written after it in the 2nd person singular preset tense verbs (пишешь) and in feminine nouns ending in
ш (мышь) must not confuse you, this
ь is just an orthographic convention, it does not influence the pronunciation of
ш is always non-palatalized. The IPA symbol for the English 'sh' is /ʃ/ and for the Russian 'ш' is /ʂ/, it is a retroflex consonant (you can listen to the sound there).
щ, it is a long alveopalatal consonant, IPA symbol for it is /ɕː/ (you can listen to the sound there, and there is also the sound for the Russian word 'счастье' in which 'сч' is pronounced as 'щ'). Roughly speaking, in Standard Russian it is pronounced like the English 'shsh' in the phrase 'the dish she likes'. Some people pronounce
щ as 'шч', but this pronunciation is considered obsolete.
Also, remember, that Russian orthography is rather tricky, the /ʂ/ sound can be spelled as ш, ж, с, з, and the /ɕː/ sound as щ, сч, шч, зщ, сщ, жд. The word 'дождь' can be pronounced as 'дощ' or as 'дошть'.
The thing is that
ш is usually (see exceptions in comments) hard (
sha in your system), even when soft sign
ь comes after it (
тушь are pronounced exactly how they would be pronounced without ending
ь). Note situations like this: in word
и does not make
ы in pronunciation. And 'щ' is usually soft (
This table is shown to students in primary school:
Look at the consonants (the cyan section) -- green letters are always soft (
щ is green), blue letters are always hard (
ш is blue). Two-colored letters have both hard and soft sounds.