Exceptions: Ж, Ш, and Ц (Always Hard)

There are three consonants that never change their pronunciation, even when they are followed by soft vowels. These three consonants (Ж, Ш, and Ц) are always pronounced hard. In fact they actually tend to change the pronunciation of the vowels that follow them, making them hard as well. For example, if a "ж" is followed by a "е," that "e" will no longer be pronounced soft, but will sound more like "э."

Correct Pronunciation Incorrect Pronunciation
жена (жэна) жена (жьена)
шесть (шэсть) шесть (шьесть)
церковь (цэрковь) церковь (цьерковь)
цель (цэль) цель (цьел)
цель (цьель)
цель (цэл)

As you can tell, the word цель can be very problematic, because it starts with a ц and ends with a soft л. The pronunciation for this word in the left column is correct. The pronunciations in the right column are all of the ways missionaries tend to mispronounce this difficult word.