1

I can see that several questions (1, 2) have already been asked about this, but I would like to ask specifically in the context of Russian phonetics. Russian is my native language, but I'm fluent in English. I've lived in the US for the last 12 years and I'm 26. I don't seem to have problems with any other sounds that don't exist in Russian (e.g. th, w, or the difference between oo in food and foot). But these e and a (as in ten and tan) are the bane of my existence. They are virtually impossible for me to distinguish (I usually just guess from the context) and are even harder to pronounce distinctly. To make matters worse, every time I ask native speakers about how to pronounce them, I seem to get conflicting information.

Here's an English phonetic chart for reference. Unfortunately, I can't find one for Russian (has nobody made one? I'd like to see it).

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On separate occasions people have told me that either /æ/ or /ɛ/ sounds like the Russian э. But if I make anyone say the two English vowels over and over they sound closer to each other than to э.

Does anyone have personal experience or opinions regarding this?

I just looked this up on YouTube, and it's only made me more confused. The way this guy pronounces the two sounds makes it seem like a is just a longer version of e.

2

Not all English speakers use the same pronunciations. Unfortunately, English has pretty weird vowels so it's hard to give good advice about how to differentiate them for non-native speakers. Some English vowels are differentiated to some degree by duration or the trajectory of the vowel through "vowel space" (e.g. for me, /e/ (as in aid) and /ɪ/ (as in id) are fairly close if you plot them on a vowel chart, but /ɪ/ is shorter and has a different trajectory).

It should generally be true that /æ/ has a more open quality than /ɛ/. It also tends to be a relatively long vowel, so it seems plausible to me that it is usually longer than /ɛ/.

If you are used to listening to American English speakers, a separate complication is the existence of "raised" allophones of /æ/ that may be even closer in quality than /ɛ/ (a raised allophone of /æ/ may actually be near /e/ in quality—a somewhat common transcription is [eə], which represents a single diphthongal nucleus, not a sequence of two vowels in hiatus). The exact distribution of this raised allophone of /æ/ varies between speakers, but it's generally conditioned by the identity of the following consonant. It's common to hear it before nasal consonants.

So in the particular case of ten and tan, the latter word might very well have a closer vowel than the first for many American English speakers.

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