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Reading in Russian: Some Tips to Help You Read Correctly

When we are learning any foreign language, we are bound to compare it with our mother tongue (let's assume that yours is English).

Learning Russian has already brought you pleasant surprises -- for example, remember the moment when you found out that spelling in Russian is much simpler than in English? It means that it is easier for a learner to start reading. You don't agree and think that reading Russian is difficult? Then imagine a native Russian-speaker learning English and trying to figure out how to read double-o in words like "book", "floor", or "blood". If he hasn't yet heard these words and the teacher is far away at the moment, learning how to read takes tremendous effort. Compared to him, YOU are lucky.

But all the same -- reading in Russian can sometimes be tricky for a beginner, whose native language is English. Hard and soft consonants are usually the most difficult thing for a student to remember.

In English it doesn't matter whether the consonant you pronounce is hard or soft, but in Russian it can make another word. Your teacher surely has told you this, but there is a pretty long distance between knowing a rule and applying it automatically. That is why beginners often read words like "СЕЛ" and "СЪЕЛ" the same. Listening, memorizing, imitating native speakers will help -- in time. What to do here and now, especially if there is no tutor to correct?

Well, you can control your reading yourself so you won't confuse "Он сел" (He sat down/have sat down) Он съел… (He has eaten…).

To sort out this mess with the consonants, let's take a look at Russian VOWELS. Yes, vowels, because that's what causes the trouble. There are 4 vowels that soften the preceding consonant -- Я, Ё, Е, Ю, И…

But probably we'd better begin from the beginning.

Let's divide Russian vowels into two groups:

Group 1: А О Э У Ы
Group 2: Я Ё Е Ю И

Have you noticed something? Not yet? Well, let's put them in pairs: А –Я, О – Ё, Э – Е, У – Ю, Ы – И

Now you see…Я sounds ЙА, Ё is ЙО, Ю is ЙУ and Е is ЙЭ.

Now the pairs are like: А –ЙА, О – ЙО, Э – ЙЭ, У – ЙУ

In 4 out of 5 pairs the sound from the second group = Й + the sound from the first group.

Remember that, it will help you in reading.

Now some good news: You will never have any problem reading vowels from the Group 1. Letters А,О,Э,У,Ы are read always the same.

Now about Group 2. Letters Я,Ё,Е,Ю can cause some trouble in reading. What's more, they are responsible for most of your foreign accent when you're speaking Russian. To avoid both, remember these simple rules:

If letters Я,Е,Ё,Ю,И go after a consonant, they:

  • soften this consonant
  • Я,Е,Ё,Ю lose Й and turn into А,Э,О,У

Example: the word НЯНЯ (a nanny, a babysitter) The most common mistake is reading it as н'йа-н'йа (an apostrophe after the letter means the sound is soft). The right pronunciation is н'а-н'а more examples: ВЕСНА = в'эсна (spring)

The letter И after a consonant simply softens it (it has no Й to lose). СИНИЙ = с'и-н'ий (navy blue) МИР = м'ир (world/peace)


It happens when:

  1. The word begins with such a letter:
  2. Яблоко = read it as ЙАблоко (apple)
    Ёжик = ЙОжык (hedgehog)
    Ехать = ЙЕхать (to go, usually by some means of transport)
    Юпитер = ЙУп'ит'эр (Jupiter)

  3. When such a letter follows a vowel:
  4. маЯк = маЙАк (lighthouse)
    моЁ =моЙО (mine, or my – with a neuter noun, like my coat = моё пальто)
    приЕхать =приЙЭхать (to come by some means of transport)

  5. When these vowels follow Ъ and Ь.These two letters indicate that after them those 4 vowels will sound as йа, йэ, йо, йу. That's what Ъ and Ь and are for.

ВЪЕЗД=вЙЕзд (entrance for transport)
СВИНЬЯ= свин'ЙА (pig)

But how to use all this to improve reading? For example, you can do like this:

  • Print a page with the Russian text you are going to read
  • Underline the Group 2 vowels in this text (Я,Е,Ё,Ю,И)
  • Start reading, paying attention to where these letters are in the word – at the beginning of a word; after ъ, ь, or a vowel; or after a consonant.
Very soon you won't need to underline these vowels anymore.

Just a couple of more tips to keep in mind:

When you see ЦИ, read it as ЦЫ:
ЦИРК = цЫрк (circus)
The same with ЖИ and ШИ – they sound ЖЫ and ШЫ:
ЖИВОЙ = жЫвой (alive)
ШИТЬ=ШЫть (to sew)

Remember what your teacher told you about reading unstressed vowels. They sound more relaxed than stressed ones. Pretty much the same as in English – compare two Os in the word "doctor"

The similar thing happens to consonants at the end of Russian words. Some of them (called sonants) begin to sound more like other sounds, called breath consonants: Б sounds like П, В - Ф, Б - П, and the like (see textbooks). Just pronounce consonants at the end of words with less strain, and you will say them correct - automatically.

Keep training and soon your reading and speaking skills will be superb. Good luck!

Linguist by profession, Alexandra Gamanenko currently takes part in a design studio project. It offers localization and translation of websites into Russian and Ukrainian, as well as lots of other useful services.

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