The Russian language contains two types of vowels: hard and soft. Each of the five hard vowels (а, э, ы, о, у) has its own soft counter-part (я, е, и, ё, ю). The difference between hard and soft vowels is that all soft vowels are pronounced with an English "y" sound at the beginning of the vowel (so "y" + а = я, "y" + э = е, etc.). The table below shows a comparison between hard and soft vowels. Click on each vowel to hear how it is pronounced.
You may have noticed that и is a little different from the other soft vowels. With the other soft vowels, the "y" sound is pronounced at the beginning of the vowel; with и, the "y" sound is pronounced throughout the entire vowel.