How would you describe the pronunciation of r to somebody who speaks English as second language?

  • 8
    Don't describe, demonstrate! Use audio, from speakers of various origins (e.g., different parts of the US).
    – F'x
    Feb 24 '11 at 9:03

The pronunciation of [r] is very difficult for some Asians, especially r in the middle of a word such as " murder". Also Germans pronounce [r] completely different with the forms existing in English, also it's different in many other languages. It's a good idea to teach them with Visual aids and graphical content. Also that would be helpful to teach them the differences that will happen in meaning by wrong pronunciation of [r] in some of the words.

To pronounce [r]:

  • Lips: Rounded

  • Tongue tip: curled upward but not touching the roof of the mouth

  • Airstream: continuous

  • Vocal cords: Vibrating

It's good to tell them

  • If you say [l] instead of [r]: berry will sound like belly.

  • If you say [w] instead of [r]: red will sound like wed.


(Edit: American English. Sigh. One day I will learn to read the tags.)

'r' is pronounced in a number of different ways in English. Like 'l' there are two basic forms; a short consonant and a longer, more vowel-like "darker" sound. Consider the differences between the two 'r's in "reader" (and similarly the two 'l's in "little").

  • Basic sound: start with an 'l' (forward half of tongue flat against the roof of your mouth). Cup your tongue so only the edges touch and let the tip drop a little. Voice this. Exactly how far forward your tongue is when you sound the letter is one of the many regional variations.

  • Rolled 'r': only usually turns up for consonantal 'r's unless you are putting on a very fake Scottish accent. As above, but relax the tongue and let the tip vibrate against your hard palette. Quite easy to do once you can stop thinking about the mechanics of it. Rare in the US, though it is normal in Scottish and Welsh accents (for instance).

  • Vowel variations: Particularly in "-er" endings, 'r' has a tendency to shift towards whatever the main colour sound is for a given accent. Commonly this is a schwa [ə] or aesc [æ], or in drawling southern accents a long "ah". These are tendencies, though; the sound doesn't get all the way to the relevant vowel.


Try pressing both sides of your tongue against your molars (the bottom of them, not the top), then hold your tongue rigid in the middle of your mouth. There should be a noticeable space between the roof of your mouth and the middle of your tongue.

The other option is to do the same as before, except move your tongue farther back in your mouth (kind of "bunching" it to the back). The front of your tongue can kind of hang, but you still need the space in the middle.

I'd also suggest looking at some diagrams. I've found linguistics as a whole extremely helpful with pronouncing unfamiliar sounds.


That depends on where that person comes from. People from some Asian countries for example can seem incapable of pronouncing r in the way that westerners do, but this is simply because it's considered utterly unsophisticated, not because the sound doesn't exist in their language or because they don't know how to do it.

Just imagine if you were told that r should be pronounced by sticking out the tounge and making a loud noise. I imagine that this is what some Asians feel when someone tries to make them pronounce r in English.

So, describing the sound itself should be easy by just playing a sound file. Explaining that the prononciation does not make you seem like a hairy barbarian screaming RRRRRRRRRRR might be more difficult...

  • 2
    The r is pronounced differently in American English and Italian (or Spanish); it's not just a difference between people coming from Asia or from America.
    – apaderno
    Feb 24 '11 at 9:40
  • 1
    @kiamlaluno: Yes, I know, we have Swedish dialects where r is pronounced in the throut without using the tounge at all... I just wanted to point out that describing the prononciation can be fruitless if the person already knowns how to pronounce it that way, but not why.
    – Guffa
    Feb 24 '11 at 11:15
  • 1
    That is pretty interesting. I didn't know that Asians found our r (or some of our r's) repulsive or inappropriate. Funny. Feb 24 '11 at 15:02
  • 1
    I am certain that even if some Asians find the American "r" repulsive or inappropriate (which may be true, but I've not heard this before), many others do not - considering that "Asian" may include people from Iraq, Mongolia, China, Uzbekistan, Singapore, Siberia, India, Burma ...
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 24 '11 at 17:55
  • 1
    FWIW, "Asian" in the US tends to mean [Far] East Asian—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.—while "Asian" in the UK tends to mean South Asian—Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, etc. Feb 26 '11 at 4:36

First, by stating that as with learning English generally, there is not one form of the language that all English speakers speak. You should know of this, even before starting to learn. How you pronounce something in English, depends on which form of it you learn. There are two, major forms: American English and the English of the UK. There are also, other, smaller forms, such as Australian English and South African English.

Pronunciation is greatly influenced by accents. Certain English speakers do not pronounce the language in the same way as others.

This applies to the letter r, as well. There is such a thing as rhotic accents. This means, accents in which the letter r is pronounced more strongly, than in non-rhotic accents. It is often said (incorrectly) that the r is not pronounced at all, in non-rhotic accents. This is not so; it is just pronounced gently and in more nuanced ways. This is usually said by people with strong, rhotic accents, such as Americans. The pronunciation of r, as with the rest of the English language, will depend on if you learn an accent and, if so, which accent.

Once you decide, you should look for resources that teach pronunciation in the form of English, that you have decided. For example, if you decided to learn American English, try listening to American films or television programmes. If you learn another form, look for resources that teach pronunciation in that form of English.

In general, r in rhotic accents will be pronounced strongly. In American English, it is normally pronounced harshly. To describe it to someone, for example, someone learning English, you can say that it is pronounced in American English, as harshly as possible.

In general, r in non-rhotic accents will be pronounced gently. It's like the sound when a dentist tells a patients to open their mouth and say "aah". How gently it is pronounced, depends on the position of the letter r, in a word. The r in heart, would be more gentle than the r in rabbit; for example.

  • The question is tagged american-english.
    – apaderno
    Apr 1 '12 at 18:59
  • Yes, and my answer covers that, as well.
    – Tristan
    Apr 1 '12 at 19:08
  • Saying you should pronounce the 'r' harshly as possible is completely useless advice for a foreigner. As an American, I perceive German 'r's as much harsher than American ones, but I suspect that Germans might disagree. Apr 1 '12 at 19:48
  • I disagree as well, Peter. German usually has r with more of a hard sound. American letter r is usually like the r in strong, Irish accents. It's very harsh and rounded.
    – Tristan
    Apr 3 '12 at 15:28

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