English with a Russian accent

Over the years, my work has mostly appeared in English-language publications or events. But occasionally, I am consulted for projects in a different language.

Recently, I was approached by Yelena McCafferty, an award-winning Russian-English translator/interpreter from Talk Russian (по-русски) who was writing an article about speaking English with a Russian accent. Yelena specialises in business, trade and legal matters, and was interested to know what research tells us about the relationship between accent and identity. Although many Russians living in the UK may be concerned that they still sound Russian when speaking English, is it really so important to try and ‘neutralise’ or ‘lose’ one’s accent?

You can read the full article (in Russian) here. And if you’re not a Russian speaker, you might like to read a summary in English of the comments I shared with Yelena:

Our accents reveal where we are from and which social groups we belong to (or wish to belong to). They help reflect and project our identities. But research shows that there is no single accent of English which is most widely used, understood or accepted. And interestingly, in international English communicative contexts (such as in business or academia), it is very often the native speakers whose pronunciation is least clear to others.

Most of the world’s 2 billion English users are non-native and multilingual. Even in the UK, eight percent of the population has a main language other than English, and in London, over 35% of schoolchildren have a non-English home language. English users are characterised by their diversity, both in the UK and internationally. Awareness of our own and others’ pronunciation is certainly important for clear communication, but it is not at all necessary, realistic or desirable to try and ‘lose’ one’s accent entirely.

In short, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sounding Russian when you speak English. Like all effective international English users, there will be some pronunciation features that are important if you want to be widely understood, but there is also plenty of room for you to retain certain pronunciation features that “give you an accent”. That accent is part of your identity and that’s perfectly fine.

So which features of English are especially important for Russian speakers to focus on? Which things are going to help you be understood by a range of other English speakers from a range of different language backgrounds?

There are a number of key areas, but here are just three to get you started:

1. Aspiration of /p/, /t/ and /k/ sounds when followed by a vowel at the start of a stressed syllable.

For example: there are two syllables and two /p/ sounds in the word ‘paper’, with one /p/ at the start of each syllable. The first syllable is stressed, so this /p/ should be aspirated; but the second /p/ would not be aspirated. To aspirate a /p/, /t/ or /k/ sound, you need to release a little bit of air when you say the sound. (Don’t be too enthusiastic, or the words potatoes and pasta might come out like this!)

2. Length of vowel sounds before voiced consonants, especially at the ends of words.

For example: the vowel in had should be slightly longer than the vowel in hat; the vowel in back should be slightly longer than the vowel in bag; and the vowel in p should be slightly longer than the vowel in b. Russian speakers usually devoice consonants at the ends of words (compare English standard with Russian стандарт) and it can be very difficult to add this voicing when speaking English. But by lengthening the preceding vowel (so that had doesn’t sound like hat), you can create the same effect and help the listener.

3. The /ɜː/ vowel sound.

For example: work, bird. Try not to be distracted by the spelling. Both of these words have the same vowel sound, despite their different spellings. For Russian speakers, this sound might be particularly challenging when it follows a /w/ sound (as in work).

Moscow (author’s own photo, 2012)

I am based in London (UK) and work as a consultant, trainer, speaker and writer, focusing on how to use English clearly and effectively when communicating with international audiences.

If you are a Russian-accented English speaker, are based in London, and want to find out more about making your pronunciation as clear as possible for international communicative contexts (such as business, academia, media), contact me to discuss tuition opportunities.

I also work with speakers from other first-language backgrounds (including English), so feel free to get in touch even if you are not a Russian speaker.




British Academy (2013). Multilingual Britain. Published online at http://www.ucml.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Multilingual%20Britain%20Report.pdf

Crystal, D. (2008). ‘Two thousand million?’ English Today, 93, Vol. 24, Issue 1, pp. 3-6.

Jenkins, J. (2014). English as a lingua franca in the international university. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kalocsai, K. (2009). Erasmus exchange students: A behind-the-scenes view of an ELF community of practice. Apples – Journal of Applied Language Studies, 3/1, pp. 25-49.

Levis, J. (2007). Guidelines for promoting intelligibility. Paper presented at International TESOL, Seattle, WA March 2007.

McCafferty, Y. (2019). Как избавиться от иностранного акцента в английской речи. The Business Courier. Published online at https://thebusinesscourier.com/ru/kak-izbavitsya-ot-inostrannogo-akcenta-v-anglijskoj-rechi

Munro, M. & Derwing, T. (1999).  Foreign accent, comprehensibility, and intelligibility in the speech of second language learners. Language Learning, 49 (supp. 1), pp. 285-310.

Ordin, M. (2010). ‘Russian’. In R. Walker, Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 127-130.

Smith, L. E. & Rafiqzad, K. (1979). English for cross-cultural communication: The question of intelligibility. TESOL Quarterly, 13/3, pp. 371-380.

Von Ahn, M., Lupton, R., Greenwood, C. and Wiggins, D. (2010). Languages, ethnicity and education in London. Institute of Education: Department of Quantitative Social Science. Published online at http://repec.ioe.ac.uk/REPEc/pdf/qsswp1012.pdf

Sweeney, E. and Zhu, Hua (2010). Accommodating towards your audience: do native speakers of English know how to accommodate their communication strategies towards non-native speakers of English? Journal of Business Communication 47 (4), pp. 477-504.


Macmillan webinar coming soon…

It’s been a while since I gave a webinar!

And what better way to make a comeback than via Macmillan’s ‘Advancing Learning’ series, which is devoting the next few months to “celebrating Women Advancing Learning with a fantastic line-up of prominent female experts and authors from the education and ELT world“?

In my webinar for this series on 7 November 2018, we’ll discuss the issue of “Teaching English pronunciation for the real world”. It’s gonna be fun. In fact, it’ll be so much fun, I’m doing it twice! Once at 10:00 and again at 16:00 (GMT); so, whatever time zone you’re in that day, I hope you can make it.

[Update, December 2018: you can now watch a recording of this webinar or read a summary by ELT Planning.]

Did you know, for example, that…

  • …there are billions of people using English today – and most of them are not native speakers?
  • …there is no single accent of English which is most widely understood?
  • …teaching pronunciation can be both practical and fun?
  • …teaching pronunciation will improve learners’ skills in all areas, not only speaking?

In the webinar, we’ll discuss these points and more, plus try some practical activities for teaching pron. Attendees will get a certificate from Macmillan afterwards.

Sign up now via the Macmillan English website.

Laura Patsko Macmillan webinar 7 Nov

Our new pronunciation book!

ELF Pronunciation

We are VERY excited to say that our new book, How To Write Pronunciation Activities, is now available on Smashwords, iBooks, and Amazon [affiliate link]. Find out more here.

Some of the things we cover in this book:

  • the challenges of writing pronunciation materials
  • how to support teachers in using pronunciation materials
  • dealing with diversity: ELF and different accents of English
  • pronunciation for listening vs. pronunciation for speaking
  • how to integrate pronunciation activities with other skills areas
  • how to design a syllabus for different levels
  • how to stage pronunciation activities
  • how to write rubrics
  • using the phonemic chart
  • beyond the student’s book: designing homework and supplementary materials
  • useful resources for further reading and resources

The book is very practical, with examples and explanations of all key points, plus exercises to guide the reader in his/her development as a writer of pronunciation materials.

Thank you to everyone…

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How to share research, Part 4: Live online Q and A

The horror!
Does the word “research” make you do this?

What do you think of when you hear the word “research”?

Many people who are not based in a very academic setting (e.g. a university) hear the word “research” and immediately think that it will be boring, dry, confusing, esoteric, irrelevant to “real life”, or that it will take them forever to read and understand a research publication. Of course, sometimes research is like this — but it doesn’t have to be! Continue reading

How to share research, Part 3: Dance your PhD

The horror!
Does the word “research” make you do this?

What do you think of when you hear the word “research”?

Many people who are not based in a very academic setting (e.g. a university) hear the word “research” and immediately think that it will be boring, dry, confusing, esoteric, irrelevant to “real life”, or that it will take them forever to read and understand a research publication. Of course, sometimes research is like this — but it doesn’t have to be! Continue reading