Russian pronunciation. Vowels.

There are 10 vowel letters in the Russian language. They can be divided in different ways but we would like to have a good look at one particular where you can compare their hardness and softness. The terms “hardness” and “softness” do not refer to the vowels themselves, but to the consonants that precede them.

‘Hard’ group: 1) а, 2) э, 3) о, 4) у, 5) ы.
1) a as in father
2) e as in echo
3) о as in ought
4) и as in flu
5) i as in vigor

‘Soft’ group: 6) я, 7) e, 8) ё, 9) ю, 10) и
6) ya as in yacht
7) ye as in yes
8) yo as in York
9) yu as in Yukon
10) i as in visa

For sure, English sounds are different from Russian ones, however, these examples might give you some clearness to understand what way you need to go.

Stressed and unstressed vowels.
In Russian, just like in English, the individual pronunciation parts of a word (i.e. syllables, слоги, which we’ll discuss in just a moment) aren’t pronounced with the same weight. One syllable receives more emphasis than the others. A syllable is a unit of pronunciation that has one vowel sound. A stressed vowel is one that is emphasized by pronouncing it with greater force, or louder, than unstressed vowels. A word might have one syllable (like “дом” or “день”) or more, such as “но́-вый” (two syllables), “кра-си́-вый” (three syllables), “ин-те-ре́с-ный” (four syllables), etc. For example, there are three syllables in the word “красивый” /кра-СИ-вый/ and the word stress falls on the second one /СИ/. (Please note that in this guide, I’ll demonstrate the stress in a word by capitalizing all the letters that make up the syllable.)

Another important thing you need to know about Russian stress that it can fall on any vowel in the word and may shift from one syllable to another within the grammatical forms of the same word, for example, within the singular and plural forms of a noun: спо́соб(way) and способы́(ways). Also, stress can determine the meaning and/or the part of speech of certain words that are spelled alike: the adverb до́ма (at home) and the plural noun дома́ (houses). For these reasons, it is very important when learning new words to learn the stress of the word as well. Stressed vowels are not normally marked in a Russian text, but they are marked in dictionaries and textbooks of Russian. Note also that the vowel letter ё always indicates a stressed vowel, so it is the only vowel whose stress is not indicated by the acute accent. 

The relax way in pronunciation of unstressed vowels brings some changes are referred to as vowel reduction. Not all vowels in Russian are reduced. For example, the vowels ю/у and и/ы when unstressed remain essentially the same. Nor can the vowel ё ever be reduced, since this vowel is always stressed. Therefore, the only vowels that may have a reduced pronunciation are а, о, я, е and э.

1. Reduction of the vowels А(а) and О(о).

О(о) becomes [ а ]
In the syllable immediately preceding the stressed syllable and/or word-initial
position о is pronounced as a slightly shorter and more like a sound.
(Click on the word to listen to the pronunciation of native speakers on forvo.com)
Звони́ть [звани́ть] To call
Хоро́ший [харо́ший] Good
Большо́й [бальшо́й] Big

note: When preceded by the consonant ч, unstressed a is pronounced [и]: часы́ [чисы] watch.
note: When preceded by the consonant ж, unstressed a is pronounced [ы]: жале́ть [жылеть] to regret

2. Reduction of the Vowels Я(я) and Е(е).

Я(я) [йа] / Е(е) [йэ] become [йи] or [и].

Except in grammatical endings, in word-initial position or after a vowel unstressed я and e are both pronounced [йи]; after a consonant, these vowels are pronounced [и], without the initial [й].

Word-initial
Язык [йизы́к] Language
Еда [йида́] Food

After a vowel
Пояс [по́йис] Belt
Поедим [пойи д´и́м] Let’s eat

After a soft сonsonant
Телефон [т´ил´ифо́н] Phone
Десять [д´е́с´ит´] Ten

Я(я) [йа] / Е(е) [йэ] become [ə] or [и]

In grammatical endings, the pronunciation of unstressed я is usually distinguished from unstressed е. Unstressed я [йа] after a consonant becomes relax and it is pronounced like [ə] in the English language. Unstressed е [йэ] after a consonant becomes [и].

Баня [ба́н´ə] Bathhouse
В бане [вба́н´и] In the bathhouse

NOTE: check the pronunciation after the consonants ш, ж, and ц in the dictionary!

3. Reduction of the Vowel Э(э)

The vowel э when unstressed is pronounced [ə]. This vowel letter occurs primarily in words of foreign origin, and almost always at the beginning of the word.

Экватор [əква́тар] Equator
Эпоха [əпо́ха] Epoch