Scientists discovered that during the first few months of our lives, we hear all the sounds of human speech as they are, while our brain collects some kind of statistic information. When we are 8 to 10 months old, we begin sorting important sounds and nuances out from unimportant ones, so your brain starts filtering out nuances of pronunciation that are considered to be unimportant in your native language. If there are no nasal sounds in your language, you most likely won't hear the difference between nasal and non-nasal sounds in a language where such sounds are typical and important. We have to train our ears to hear the nuances that our brain used to filter out and need a lot of practice in pronouncing unusual sounds correctly. For example, it took me about three weeks of intensive training to start pronouncing French nasal sounds in a more or less French fashion.
Russian hard and soft consonants are what many non-native speakers are struggling with because many other languages do not have hard or soft sounds. The idea of hardness ans softness of consonants looks weird to people who have never dealt with the phonetic system like in Russian.
Almost every Russian consonant letter is for two sounds, or, better to say, for the hard and soft variants of a sound. In transcription [which is normally written in the square brackets], the softness is marked with a [ ' ] sign. In English, all consonants are somewhat in between hard and soft, so it doesn't really matter whether you pronounce a sound a bit harder or a bit softer. In Russian, pronouncing a sound clearly hard or clearly softly is critically important, because often the softness or hardness of the consonant is the only difference between two words. For example, “мать” [ma:t'] means mother and мять [m'a:t'] means to wrinkle; брат [bra:t] means brother and брать [bra:t'] means to take.
In order to determine whether a consonant is hard or soft, look at the letter that follows the consonant. Vowels А, О, У, Ы, and Э follow hard consonants, while vowels Я, Ё, Ю, И, Е and the soft sign Ь follow soft consonants, they “palatalize” the consonant before.
Some consonants are always hard, so it doesn't matter what vowel comes next. They are: Ж, Ш and Ц. On the other hand, sounds Ч and Щ are always soft.
So how should to pronounce hard and soft consonants? Have you ever watched any Hollywood's movies where actors mimic the Russian accent? Then you know how to pronounce Russian hard consonants. Just try to mock the Russian accent, when pronouncing hard sounds, and that's it.
Soft sounds are a little bit softer than normal English consonants. Here are some examples:
— Russian soft П sounds like English P in “pure”
— Russian soft В is like V in “view”
— Russian soft Д is like D in “due”
— Russian soft М is like M in “mute”
— Russian soft Л is like L in “Lewis”
I think, you've got the idea.
Psycholinguistic studies show that Russian speakers associate soft sounds with cute, nice, small things. Maybe this is why many Russian affectionate words and
names contain soft sounds.
Here is my presentation on Russian consonants: