Yep, there is no difference — or a difference so subtle that you should not trust your ears anyway. In standard Russian as it is spoken these days, unstressed и and э/е merge into the same vowel.
Around the middle of the 20th century, it was argued that maybe, just maybe, Е denotes a a slightly more open vowel when unstressed, at least in the speech of older people. Avanesov's book «Фонетика современного русского литературного языка» ("The Phonetics of Modern Russian Literary Language") published in 1956 already describes this opposition of и and иͤ as "fairly unstable in the modern language", only present in some speaker's speech and considered substandard if strongly pronounced. Nowadays such difference is virtually non-existent, probably influenced by the following factors:
- reduced vowels are less loud than the stressed ones.
- reduced vowels have a fairly lax articulation
- reduced vowels are shorter, especially post-tonic ones (i.e. those after the stressed syllable).
For these reasons, even if such vowels proved to be acoustically different, it would be unreasonable to try to distinguish them when listening.
They are pronounced quite differently, actually, although it can take awhile to learn to distinguish the difference. Neither are exactly like "sh" in English.
ш is always hard (despite the spelling rule that requires it to be followed by the soft-marker vowel и). To pronounce it, curl the tip of your tongue back while making something like a "sh" sound.
щ is always soft. To pronounce it, press the tip of your tongue against the bottom of your lower teeth, and arch the middle of your tongue toward the roof of your mouth at the same time.
Not all speakers produce the sounds exactly like this, but it's a good way to train your mouth as a second-language speaker.
Edit: Hey look, there's a whole sticky on them: https://forum.duolingo.com/comment/17454475
This is not true. As a native Russian speaker I can tell you that there is a big difference between ваши and ваше. The duolingo persons who made the pronunciation of russian words are not native speakers. They put wrong stresses and distord the words.
They are the same in the standard pronunciation. I specifically mean native speakers from Moscow and St.Petersburg, talking at normal speed. Some speakers may pronounce them more clearly—at will or always. Russia is a large place (and not the only place where Russian is spoken).
Admittedly, the pronunciations synthesised by the current TTS are rather buggy.
вещь (veščʹ) [vʲeɕː] f inan (genitive ве́щи, nominative plural ве́щи, genitive plural веще́й) "thing, object; things, belongings" From Old East Slavic вещь (veščĭ), borrowed from Old Church Slavonic вещь (veštĭ), from Proto-Slavic *veťь, from *vektь, from Proto-Indo-European *wekti-(“cause, sake, thing”), from *wekʷ- (“to speak”). Morphologically *vek- + *-tь. Cognate with Proto-Germanic *wihtiz, whence English wight ("supernatural creature") and whit ("extremely unimportant thing"), Gothic waihts ("thing").
On the last discussion page there was an excellent explanation of this. Basically ш is non-palatised (or hard) and щ is palatised (or soft), hopefully you're familiar with that distinction that all Russian consonants are split into.
Practically speaking, щ is said with the whole tongue against the roof of the mouth and is probably longer, while ш just has the tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth.
The difference in russian is obvious but the english cannot show it because in english there is no distinct word for "you" as one single person and "you" as multiple persons or "your" in male and female gender form. Ты and all its derivatives refer to "you" as single person. Вы refers to "you" as multiple persons, but it can be tricky because it also refers to a single person to whom we adress with enhanced respect, like young to older people, pupils to teacher, students to professor etc. and also when you speak to unknown man/woman of same status, to make a respectfull approach.
Although i got used on adressing a single person using plural at very young age, I still find it weird and artificial.
Because the goal of this course is to check if you have learned a lesson or are just guessing.
If you had written woman instead of women, you would fail because according to Duo you are at the level of not distinguishing between singular and plural form of the word. You would probably get more exercises to learn that word. There are typos, and there are the typos :)
A lot of people can't hear the difference between ш and щ. So it seems that Duo wants to "force" students to distinguish these sounds. It's probably the same when people write ы after ш (this is a spelling rule) or they forget about ь/ъ.
ваш means your. свой is a weird word that has no direct translation in English. свой can be any possessive determiner (my, your, his, her, its, our, their) but only when the possessor is the subject of the sentence. So e.g.
I eat my apple => Я ем своё яблоко
He eats his apples => Он ест свои яблоки
They love their mother => Они любят свою мать
And so on.