When I was taking my ten week Russian course years ago, I ran across an MP3 with sample sounds. The pair that got me very worried was Борис vs Борись. At the time, I could hear only the vaguest difference between those sounds, much less be able to reliably pronounce them.
Recently I was wondering how common it is in Russian that two words differ only by a soft sign. Is that rare, not uncommon, or does it happen all the time? Is there any list of words like this somewhere? I was thinking of developing a list and saying one of the pair to a native speaker and asking them which one I said, and having them say a random choice and me telling them what I heard.
I remember reading about how close the French words for "over" and "under" sound (both sound like "desous"), and that French orators tend to avoid using them because it is hard to make sure everyone hears the right word over a PA system, etc. Does the same thing happen in Russian, or is the difference really obvious to the native Russian ear? Or does Russian encode words differing only in a soft sign with wildly different meaning so the correct word is heard easily in context? (Apparently, Борись is archaic.)
These days when I meet a native Russian speaker, I often ask them to pronounce Борис vs Борись, so I can again marvel at how subtle the difference is to this native English speaker's ear.