4: The American English /r/

Learn how the American /r/ is different from the British /r/.

PRACTICE: "On Thursday, Thelma threw three red rocks."


Hello everyone. It's me, Mandy. Welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation podcast. This is podcast number 4. Today we are going to begin a series of podcasts dedicated to one of the most hated sounds of English, the r sound and l sound. These are very complicated sounds, and it will take us a few shows to get through them in their entirety. In fact, today, we aren't even going to talk about the l sound. Our sentence for practicing the r sound today is, "On Thursday, Thelma threw three red rocks." It is no accident that we are putting so much emphasis on the r sound after the unvoiced th sound in that sentence.

Before we begin talking about the r sound and l sound, let's review our sentences and word sets from podcasts one through three. First, the th sounds. Repeat after me. "Think about this thing, that thing, and those things." (pause). Then our d sound/t sound minimal pairs, "dime, time; dense, tense; code, coat; tide, tight; spend, spent." And finally our s sound / z sound practice with the s endings in the sentence, "Cats love boxes, dogs love beds." All of these practice sentences are in the show notes, along with audio for them, as well as the transcripts for each show, at www.pronuncian.com.

Now, back to the r sound and l sound. First, let's give these sounds a category. We'll use the common linguistic term "liquid" for these two sounds. Liquid is the most consistent term I've found for these sounds.

When speaking with the General American Accent, Americans use a rhotic r, which means we say it in all parts of the word, including when it occurs after a vowel sound. This is one of the major differences among accents of English. I tell my students, where you see an r written, pronounce the r sound. Wikipedia has a map showing Britain and America and the areas of those countries that speak with a rhotic and non-rhotic accent. All I want you to remember is that the General American Accent pronounces the r sound wherever it is written.

So how do we create this tricky sound? Well, there is no single correct way. The tip of the tongue may be raised or lowered, some people bunch the tongue up in the center of the mouth, and some bunch the tongue up at the back of the mouth. The important feature of creating an r sound is that the very back of our tongue, actually down in our throat, is constricted. In the General American Accent, the r sound is also a smooth sound that we can make continually without stopping: (r sound).

The continuous quality of the sound is very important. It means that we do not tap the r sound like this, (red-tap) trill, or roll our r sound like this. (red-trill) If the tip of your tongue is raised so high that it touches the tooth ridge, you cannot be creating the sound correctly. Also, if the back of your tongue is causing friction and a substantial vibration, as a fricative would, you cannot be creating the r sound as an American English speaker would, like this. (red-fricative) The sound is smooth and continuous, and the tongue never touches the tooth ridge: red.

It is usually at the beginning of a word that a non-native speaker can first say the sound correctly, as in the words "race" "rough" or "red". The pronuncian.com webpage has all the General American Accent sounds with words sorted by beginning, middle, or end of the word. See for yourself if you have an easier or harder time with the sound based on where the sound is in the word.

Since we've already studied the unvoiced th sound, let me bring attention to a particularly difficult sound combination for a lot of people, the unvoiced th sound then r sound. If you have a tendency to tap your tongue, you will probably find that this is quite difficulty to stop doing in this combination. Ready? Repeat after me.


"On Thursday, Thelma threw three red rocks."


Let's try it again.


"On Thursday, Thelma threw three red rocks."


And, one more time a little faster.


"On Thursday, Thelma threw three red rocks."


Let me say here that there is not a language group that I have taught yet that has had no trouble with the r sound. So if this is a really, really tough sound for you, you're not alone. Spend some time analyzing your own speech patterns and see what you learn about the way you speak.

In our next podcast I'll add the l sound to the picture, and then after that I will come back to r-controlled vowels. For now, practice the r sound at the beginning of a word and after the unvoiced th sound. If it takes a long time to make this change, remember that you are dealing with both relearning to use the muscles in your mouth as well has needing to break very old habits.

If you have a pronunciation issue that you would like me to talk about, please email me at podcast@p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.com, and I'll get to it as soon as possible. Also, if you've downloaded this podcast through iTunes, please, write a review and tell the world what you think.

Good luck with the r sound everyone, and have a great week!