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).
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.
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