"I struggle with ш and щ. I guess it will come naturally later on, but how am I supposed to be able to differentiate between them? They are so similar!"They are very similar, indeed. Many of my students confuse these letters.The only difference here is that ш is always hard while щ is always soft. What exactly does it mean and why should you care?
First, a bit of theory. Most non-Russian speakers find it difficult to distinguish hard and soft consonants. In Russian, hard and soft consonants are as important as, for example, long and short vowels in English. The meaning of a word may change because of hard or soft consonant. I’m sure you can differentiate between sheet and shit, right? I can’t because in Russian, we don’t differentiate short and long vowels.
The easiest part of your question is the visual difference between Ш and Щ. the latter has a small tail.
Technically, English sh is closer to щ. However, many Russians tend to pronounce sh too hard, like ш. Mock the Russian accent and you’ll probably get the idea.
There are not many words (actually, I don’t know any) that would be identical except that one has ш and the other is spelt with a щ. So, you won’t confuse two words just because you can not differentiate between these two sounds, don’t worry.
However, it is important to pronounce these sounds distinctively. To master Ш, form a cup with your tongue: let the middle of your tongue relax and lie down, and place (but don't press) the tip of your tongue against the back of the alveolar ridge (post-alveolar). Pronouncing Щ is pretty much the same as the sh in she, but you should raise the middle of your tongue slightly higher to the roof of your mouth.
Here is my recording of some words with Ш and Щ in different positions, so you can train your ear
I hope, this helps.
Photo by Steven Mueller