I’m fond of saying that stress placement is the biggest and most underrated difficulty for English-speaking learners of Russian, which probably just makes my own mistakes that much more noticeable. Everyone spends tons of time on, say, hard vs. soft consonants and case endings, but often putting the stress on the wrong syllable interferes with communication more than failing to palatalize one phoneme or using the wrong case. I’m not talking just about actual minimal pairs for stress, though there are plenty of those.
But what can you do? This is a hard problem to work on. You can read, but stress is hardly ever marked. You can listen to native speakers, but you might wait a long time before you hear the plural of a short-form adjective you’re not sure about, or the dative plural of some noun.
My strategies so far:
- Look at prescriptive and descriptive books about Russian stress. This complex descriptive work by Tore Nesset will make you throw up your hands in despair, but it also gives you useful rules of thumb. For instance, if a feminine noun in -а is stem-stressed in the nominative singular, it will be in every form, with very rare exceptions like деревня (деревень, деревням…) Or, if you have a noun that’s stem-stressed in the nominative plural and you want to predict whether the stress will shift to the ending in the oblique cases, it’s more likely to if the final consonant of the stem is soft (свечи, свечей, свечам versus страны, стран, странам, but with many exceptions like головы, голов, головам). Here’s a handy online prescriptive reference based on a reference book by A. A. Zalizniak.
- Memorize poems and let the meter tell you where the stress should go. This also works for passages in Andrei Belyi’s Petersburg (“пробегая по дням, по годам, по минутам, ǁ по сырым петербургским проспектам, ǁ пробегая — во сне, наяву, пробегая… томительно; ǁ а вдогонку за ним, а вдогонку за всеми — ǁ громыхали удары металла, дробящие жизни: ǁ громыхали удары металла — ǁ в пустырях и в деревне; ǁ громыхали они в городах; громыхали они — по подъездам, площадкам, ступеням полунощных лестниц.”)
- And my latest effort, printing out pages of Gertsen’s My Life and Thoughts (Былое и думы, 1852-68), doing my best to mark stress, listening to an audiobook of it, and seeing where I went wrong. Since this is a twentieth-century professional reading a formal nineteenth-century text, the usage is probably a bit conservative, but as a non-native speaker I like to aim to be slightly more old-fashioned and prescriptively correct than the average speaker today. I expected to make mistakes about whether the stress should move to the prefix of a past-tense verb, and where it should go with short-form adjectives and participles, as well as the less common case forms of nouns with moving stress. These things happened (ведомостями, сведущ), but it turns out they were numerically less common than words where I was just wrong about the stress of the dictionary form (сено, путное, ухарский, земские). With земские I wonder if I was getting interference from мирские.
The other thing I learned from this last exercise: smooth professional readers don’t follow the text as closely as I thought. Written меньшим, притязания, фантастических, велел became spoken младшим, претензии, фактических, ввел. Foreign phrases like “half-and-half” and “à la guerre comme à la guerre” were replaced without comment by Russian equivalents (presumably a conscious choice to avoid reading footnotes aloud, as I think was done earlier in the same recording). And, just as I’d heard happened in language classes but couldn’t quite believe, “И. И. Дмитриеву” was read as “Дмитриеву.” If it’s so unnatural to read initials, what do people do when there’s a text about Ф. М. Толстой and С. Л. Толстой and they don’t know or can’t remember the first names?