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In Russian, the consonants that are not soft (except к, г, х) are harder than in English. What makes them harder is that the back of the tongue is kept high and back. Another exception is "l" as in fall, which is hard in both languages. ("velarized") All other consonants are non-velarized in English.

I would like to learn what are the common methods that can be used to teach this. I find this important since it seems to be the primary reason non-native speakers sound as foreigners to Russians.

To give a better example of what I'm talking about, I found two recordings of this text twice by the same speaker, once with velarization (time mark 00:00) and once without (00:33). The recording is at the bottom of this page. I need to learn to pronounce with velarization.

My largest problems are:

  • I usually don't hear the difference between normal and hard consonants when I speak
  • My tongue becomes too tense when I velarize

Do you have any tips? I think I devised some which I might post, but later, to avoid influencing answers. Any ideas? I hope this kind of brainstorming is within the scope of this site.

EDIT: For example consider the word "love". With my non-velarized v, I can feel the back of my tongue moving and relaxing forward in the middle of the word. This wouldn't happen if a Russian speaker pronounced it, (back of the tongue would stay at the same place), would it? So an exercise for me would be moving only the tip/front half of my tongue while pronouncing it.

EDIT 2: After accepting the answer, I made further research, and finally solved my problem completely. Firstly, velarization is real. To acquire those sounds, I used any pronunciation of the alphebet and tried to imitate those sounds. What I found was, even though they were slightly velarized, the largest difference between English and Russian hard consonants was that Russian ones are made with the tongue lower. It seems that I'm on the correct path, since this doesn't make my tongue exhausted.

EDIT 3: To learn the oral posture, see this: https://web.archive.org/web/20191022020249/https://www.study-languages-online.com/russian-articulation.html

EDIT 4: My last edit, sorry for bumping again. The research linked solved my problem. All (if not almost all) hard consonants are uvularized. This means, the tongue is retracted horizontally to the back without its back raising or descending. This is what gives the Russian hard consonants "as if the mouth was more closed" say my ears.

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  • can you provide an exact list of consonants you are calling hard and clarify what in this context does "plain" consonant mean? – shabunc Jan 5 at 12:42
  • m n t/d sh/zh p/b f/v are some examples. "plain" means non-velarized, I just removed it and added "normal". – MCCCS Jan 5 at 13:16
  • so, hard = velarized, normal. = non-velarized? – shabunc Jan 5 at 13:19
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    Yes, that's what I meant – MCCCS Jan 5 at 13:20
  • м, н, т, д, ш, ж, п, б, ф, в all can be either hard or soft in Russian. – Anixx Feb 11 at 17:41
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I'd like to start with some important corrections. I feel that you misunderstand some of these, so I'll include them in my answer rather than editing your question.

First of all, the terms soft and hard are very explicitly not about velarization. It is palatalization that makes the difference. Hard consonants are non-palatalized, while soft ones are.

Specifically, when the consonant is palatalized, it usually refers to the middle of the tongue moving closer to the palate behind the alveolar ridge, restricting the airflow. This, in turn, speeds the flow of air up, giving it a "softer", almost sibilant feel.

Velarization, on the other hand, occurs in Russian with any hard consonant before ы (ɨ) sound, when the consonant acquires a secondary articulation point with the back of the tongue reaching for the velum. Though, I feel Russian is a bad example for velarization because the sounds are considered allophones.

The difference between palatalization and velarization is extremely important: these are two different effects, with two different results. If anything, velarization would only make the consonant sound harder (but not produce a hard consonant). Irish, for example, makes a distinction between broad and slender consonants. Broad are velarized, while slender are palatalized.

As for hard Russian consonants sounding harder than in English, it is mostly down to oral posture in general. I find English to call for a more tense, "rounded" posture, where is Russian allows for more relaxed, "harsher" sounds.

Also, notice how already velar sounds к, г, and х can still be made soft with palatalization. Sure, they are considered allophones, but the sounds are actually different.

Also, л is not always hard in Russian; there is a perfectly fine soft л' as in люк. So Russian has a velarized ɫ for hard л, while soft л' is instead a palatalized version of the l sound. Although, I am sure that if some speakers were to palatalize velarized ɫ, they would probably consider lj and ɫj to be allophones.

Additionally, I am not quite sure what you meant with your "love" example. Strictly speaking, a Russian speaker would not pronounce this word at all because it is an English word. So you would either get a regular English pronunciation (if a person is bilingual) or an English pronunciation with a Russian accent (if English is a secondary language for this person). However, accents are extremely varied and are even harder to quantify than dialects, so I'd avoid going down that rabbit hole.

Now, onto ways of teaching people the difference.

First, you need to actually grasp that difference yourself, get reeeally familiar with how the middle of your tongue rises up to the middle of your palate.

Secondly, I feel that a lot of English speakers don't necessarily realize how iotation works in combinations like "ня". The vowel after the consonant affects the pronunciation of that consonant, but they make it two separate sounds: a hardish consonant н and an iotified vowel я. Help them bridge the two—that will go a long way into making their Russian pronunciation that much clearer.

Thirdly, as I mentioned, soft consonants have that almost sibilant whistle to them from the sped up air. While it is not strictly necessary to produce these sounds, I found moving the corners of the mouth backwards and up (kinda like smiling, but more back than up) to be helpful to make the articulation of that hiss more pronounced (experience may vary).

Other than that—there is only one way to learn a language. Just keep them listening and speaking until they get it :D

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  • However English does have a velarized /~l/ and I would consider Russian's hard consonant oral posture to be semi-verlarized. But yes, I agree that smiling seems to be a good way of teaching palatalization. – MCCCS Jan 6 at 9:43
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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… gives feel as an example. And in American English only velarized l exists. – MCCCS Jan 6 at 11:47
  • "Also, notice how already velar sounds к, г, and х can still be made soft with palatalization. Sure, they are considered allophones, but the sounds are actually different." - wrong. They are not considered allophones. – Anixx Feb 11 at 17:36

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