Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How to Pronounce the American English "r" Sound

If I had to pick one sound that I thought was the most difficult for most people who speak English as a second language to master, I would have to choose the American English "r" sound. I choose this sound as the most difficult sound to learn for a couple of reasons: 1) the American English "r" is formed very differently than in many other languages, and 2) it is probably the most frequently occurring sound in American English: it can be a consonant as in word "red", it can be a vowel as in the word "mother" and "bird" and it can occur in consonant blends (two or three consonants together) as in the words "price", "three", "try", scratch", etc.

Let's spend a few minutes talking about how the American English "r" differs from many other languages and how to form it correctly. First of all, many languages such as Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, and Arabic, just to name a few, form the "r" by keeping the lips flat and quickly hitting the roof of the mouth with the tip of the tongue. This creates what we call "rolling" (when the tongue tip hits the roof of the mouth only once) and "trilling" (when the tip of the tongue hits the roof of the mouth more than once). Other languages, such as French and German form the "r" by using the back of their tongue against the back of their throat. Both ways of forming the "r" sound are very different from how we pronounce it in American English.

To form the American English "r", follow these steps in this order:

  • Make a circle with your lips.
  • Open your mouth slightly
  • Curl the tip of your tongue up toward the roof of your mouth,
    but make sure it does NOT touch anything. This part is important! If the tip of your tongue touches the roof of your mouth, it will sound like the American English "d" or sound rolled. If you follow the above steps, you will be able to form the American English "r." Remember, always begin by rounding your lips. If you keep them flat, it will be very difficult to form this sound correctly.
  • With the tip of your tongue curled up, you should also be able to feel the middle part of your tongue raised up toward the roof of your mouth, just where the arch is (the part of the roof of your mouth that is the highest).
  • You may also be able to feel the sides of your tongue pressing against your upper side teeth in the back of your mouth

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