How the "R" in English differs from other languages

by Dante Munnis

An illustration of the letter R. Source:

Most students of foreign languages find that English is one of the easiest modern European languages to learn in terms of pronunciation if compared to the intimidating French or German (depending on your mother tongue, of course). However, there are a few sounds that can be a challenge for students of English as a Second Language (ESL).

One of them is the “R” sound, which has so many variations in English that only make it even harder to learn. But you know that you can’t just avoid learning how to pronounce it correctly, as this is the fourth most common consonant and the eighth most common letter of the English alphabet.

The variations of “R” in English

Depending on the English-speaking country, and even within the same country, you will hear the “R” being pronounced in very particular ways.

The standard way to pronounce the “R” - meaning, that one that you are more likely to be taught in an ESL course - is the (post)alveolar approximant (/ɹ/). Many British, American, Irish and Australian people use this pronunciation.

You can give it a try by placing the tip of your tongue near the alveolar ridge, which is just above your upper teeth at the front of your mouth. You then breath out. As this a voiced sound, there should be some vibration in your vocal folds (voice box) as well.

More information:

How the “R” sounds in other languages

The “R” sound has been evolving since Ancient Egyptian times at least. It was later incorporated by Greek and Latin languages so then it would be part of the large majority of modern languages.

But, of course, due to cultural, anthropological and environmental factors, the way that the letter “R” is pronounced can vary enormously from the English version, even among neighbouring countries, as you might know.

The French “R”

In the French language, the “R” plays such an important part in their speech that the guttural R, the sound variation most common there, is also known as the “French R”.

It takes its name for being pronounced in the throat and not in the mouth – one tip to help you to make this sound is trying to pretend that you are going to gargle, and then making a “K” with a very constricted throat. When you get it right, you can practice making the “Ra” sound while still keeping your throat’s muscles tense.

The German “R”

There are several variants of the “R” sound in the German language. Two of them are more common: the vocalic “r”, used after long vowels, and in unstressed prefixes and suffixes; and the consonantal “r”, used in all other positions, and described as a roll or a trill made towards the back of the vocal tract.

The Portuguese “R”

When it comes to the Portuguese language, the “R” sound can be very tricky as you can find all possible ways of pronouncing this letter depending on the dialect. But, generally speaking, the sound will vary according to the position of the letter in the word: the /r/ in the middle of the word; the long and doubled /rr/; and the chameleonic /-r/ at the end of the word, which can end up completely mute in some cases.

The Spanish “R”

Similar to Portuguese, there are two pronunciations of “R” in Spanish: the single “R” and the double “R” - the one that creates more confusion among students of foreign languages. In this case, the “R” sound is achieved by rolling or trilling the tip of the tongue against your alveolar ridge, the part of your mouth just above your upper teeth. Then you should exhale, so to vibrate your tongue.

Wrapping it up

As you can see, the pronunciation of “R” is something that might need some practice in order to master it, depending on the language you want to learn, and which is your mother tongue.

However, you certainly know plenty of people from your country that have mastered how to pronounce the “R” correctly, and so can you.

So it is crucial that you don’t give up after just a few attempts, as it might take some time to the muscles of your tongue, and to those inside your mouth and throat, to get used to the positioning and movements it has to make.

About the writer

Dante Munnis is a blogger and idea maker from Stockholm who is interested in self-development, web related topics and success issues. You can find more of Dan's articles on his and get in touch via Twitter.


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