119: The bunched r sound

Which of these two techniques for the r sound works best for you?


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 119th episode.

The American English r sound, whether it is part of an r-controlled vowel or is being used as a consonant, is one of the most difficult sounds for non-native speakers to master. American English is known for having rhotic vowel sounds. A rhotic vowel is a vowel that is followed by an r sound. This characteristic is one of the major differences between Standard American English and the Received Pronunciation of Britain.

I like using the Cambridge Online Dictionary when I want to compare American and British pronunciation of words. For instance, here is the audio sample for the words bird and storm from their website. I'll play the British pronunciation first, then the American.

bird (British, American)
storm (British, American)

If you're practicing American pronunciation, every pronunciation textbook will tell you that a rhotic vowel is expected. Something that many student textbooks don't mention is that there is more than one way to produce the r sound that makes the vowel rhotic.

Wait a second. What?

Yes, there is more than one way to create an r sound.

The more commonly taught method is to curl the tip of the tongue upward, toward the back of the tooth ridge. With this technique, the back of the tongue kept low. In his book, A Course in Phonetics, Peter Ladefoged says that 60% of Americans use this technique.

A secondary technique that Americans use involves lifting the center tongue, especially along the sides. The sides of the tongue press against the top teeth toward the back of the mouth. The tip of the tongue is down, away from the bottom teeth. Ladefoged says that only about 35% of Americans use this technique.

I am going to guess that it's because fewer Americans use the bunched-tongue technique that few American teachers instruct their students to try it this way. However, this technique really seems easier for non-native speakers to learn to do. Sounds that we can feel the production of are often easier to learn, and I think the fact that we clearly feel the sides of our tongue press against our top back teeth makes this technique easier.

In February 2010, Dr. Wells wrote about the bunched tongue position for the r sound in his blog. He adds the detail that the back of the tongue is concave. This means that the center of the tongue, though raised, is still lower than the sides. This is an important detail that I wish Ladefoged had included in his text, but I don't see it there.

The important point is that Dr. Wells agrees that there are at least two ways of creating the sound, and we can't hear the difference between them.

So, you can create the r sound, including the r sound attached to r-controlled vowels, by curling the tip of your tongue up and back, or by lifting the center of your tongue and allowing the sides of your tongue to curl upward and touch your top back teeth.

Let's practice. I'm going to say 8 different words. These words all include an r sound as part of an r-controlled vowel. I'm going to wait longer than I normally do between words so you have time to experiment with different tongue positions. Even if you're in a public place listening to this and can't really speak aloud, I still want you to move your tongue around as you listen. Point the tip up, and bring it down and try it bunched up toward the back. Later, when you are alone, you can practice aloud. For now, it's okay to just feel the muscle movement.





How was that?

Today I want to blend a tip for practicing pronunciation with a plug to our sponsor, Audible.com. A great way to practice pronunciation is to mimic a native speaker as closely as possible. Try to copy the speaker's sound production, intonation patterns, and speed, including pauses. When you start to give so much attention to the details, I guarantee that you will learn something about English. Or, at the very least, you'll find you have more questions.

You can choose from thousands of different native speakers to emulate (emulate means to try to copy), in the Audible.com audio bookstore. Every book has a sample that you can listen to, so you can tell if the reader has the characteristics you're looking for.

For listen-and-repeat practice, short children's books work well. You could choose a book like Dr. Seuss' Oh, the Places You'll Go. Dr. Seuss is a cultural icon in American children's literature, and a name I recommend for you to become familiar with.

To get your free audiobook (while supporting this show), sign up for a free 14-day Audible trial at www.audiblepodcast.com/pronuncian.

That's www.audiblepodcast.com/pronuncian. Choose a Dr. Seuss book, or any other book in their huge library.

You can find transcripts for this podcast episode, and all of our episodes, at www.pronuncian.com/podcast. Pronuncian is spelled p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n. I'll link to the new Pronuncian lesson for the r sound, so you can get more details on this topic. I'll also link to the John Wells's Phonetic Blog so you can see what he has to say about the bunched r.

One last thing to mention: in case you did not listen to this podcast through iTunes, I would like to let you know that you can subscribe to this podcast, for free, through the iTunes store. There's a link on Pronuncian's podcast page.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening.