Is R a sound that you find tricky to incorporate into your everyday English? Maybe because you’re not quite sure how English speakers make this sound in the first place? Well, worry, not because we are here to hopefully shed some light on this sound, and improve your English speaking skills!
In our three-part series on R, we are going to give you some background about what makes R in North American English such a unique, and for many, tricky sound to learn, teach you some useful tips and tricks to make a more effective R sound yourself to improve your English fluency, and finally, provide plenty of practice throughout.
In today’s post, we are going to focus on the “er” sound often heard at the ends of words. But before we get into that, let’s get some background on what makes R such a unique sound.
WHAT IS THE “R” SOUND?
R is a really weird sound and varies a LOT from language to language. Take languages like Spanish or Italian, where it is pronounced by either tapping the tip of the tongue in the front of the mouth, like in “pero”, or rolling it, like in “perro”.
Then you have French, where it is as far in the opposite direction of the mouth as you can get, being in the BACK of the mouth, against the uvula (the part that hangs down in the back of the throat), ʁ.
Japanese doesn’t even have a distinction between R and L — hence why the difference between rice and lice are very difficult for Japanese speakers to hear and pronounce.
R IS VERY UNIQUE
R in this way is very unique, in that different languages pronounce them in vastly different parts of the mouth, and yet something about them makes them R.
But believe it or not, English is the weirdest one of all when it comes to R. One thing all of those other languages have in common when it comes to R is that they all involve some form of contact with the tongue. So, in the examples I mentioned earlier, the tip of the tongue hits the roof of your mouth behind the teeth in Spanish, and the back of the tongue vibrates way in the back of the mouth with the uvula in French.
But guess what, English DOESN’T do that. In English, the tongue does not touch ANYTHING when we make an R sound. It kind of floats there.
In fact, it is for this reason that many linguists consider R to be closer to a vowel than a consonant. Now, don’t go telling your English teacher that R is a vowel, because when it comes to letters and spelling, you should stick with what you learned in class, which is that vowels are A E I O U and sometimes Y.
BASICS OF R PRONUNCIATION
Our discussion of R over the next three posts will be divided into the three following sections:
- vocalic ER: This is found at the ends of words or syllables. It’s often spelled with an “er” or “ir” (her, stir, etc.)
- prevocalic r: This is found at the beginnings of words or syllables, and is found in words like red, rose, etc.
- R-coloured vowels: This is a bit of a special third category and is found in words like hair, fire, hour
In today’s post, we are going to focus on the first: vocalic ER. You will find this sound written a couple of different ways in pronunciation guides in dictionaries, but we will use this one: ɚ.
We start with ɚ because this, in my opinion, is the building block for all other variations of R.
For tongue placement, there are a couple of things I find helpful to remember:
- the jaw should be fairly high
- the focus should be with the middle part of the tongue, so not the tip like in Spanish, Italian, etc., not wayyy back, like in French, but right here
- the tongue should be pretty wide and flat
I mention this because different tips and tricks work for different people, and which trick works for you will largely depend on which of the three above areas you need most targeted practice on.
We are going to go through each component in order and then will put it all together, so stay through until the end!
TIPS TO MAKE A GOOD “ER” SOUND
#1: Jaw Height:
Let’s start with #1 — jaw height. In some languages and accents, we hear the /ɚ/ isn’t quite right because the jaw drops down too low. Examples of this are pronunciations of “dollar” becoming more like “dolla“, with more of a low /ɑ/ sound, like in words like “father”. Instead of /ɑ/, try a higher jaw position and play with the sound to see if you can get an /ɚ/.
It can help to place your hand underneath your chin and feel if your chin drops down on /ɚ/, and if it does, to try and keep it in a high position.
#2: Focus the sound in the middle of the mouth
If you got it, great! For many people though, this may not be enough. Maybe it sounds a bit more like /ə/ without having that “r” quality… Let’s try something else.
I want you to repeat the /g/ sound and notice what your tongue does. You should notice that around the center of the tongue, there’s contact with the middle of the roof of your mouth.
This position is somewhat close to the tongue position for /ɚ/. I want you to try to say “grrrr” or /gɚ/ with me, where the tongue just very every so slightly drops when moving from the “g” to the “er”. Remember to keep your jaw high.
If you’re still a bit stuck, try the next one…
#3: The tongue needs to be wide and flat
For tip #3, the goal is to make your tongue more wide and flat. A sound that can often help us achieve this is /i/ or “eeeee”, with the sides of the tongue getting close to or even touching the insides edges of your teeth. In fact, you can even lightly bite the sides of my tongue when you do this. That’s a good sign that you’re getting good tongue width. Try repeating /i/ a couple of times with me in front of a mirror.
A similar widening of the tongue can be helpful for getting an /ɚ/. Don’t worry if it’s not as wide as your /i/, but the goal is to keep some of that wideness in /ɚ/. Try to keep that tongue wide and flat saying “ear” three times or more.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Alright — a final exercise that puts it all together, we are going to say the word “eager” a couple of times. As you say this, remember the three components we discussed:
- high jaw height
- focus in the centre of the mouth (like the /g/ sound)
- wide tongue (like the /i/ sound).
Really prolong each sound so you can focus on what your jaw and tongue are doing!
I hope that you found some success in pronouncing “er” with these strategies and be sure to watch our accompanying video to make sure you’re getting it right. Stay tuned for Part 2: prevocalic /r/!
Don’t forget to sign up for free lessons straight to your email inbox: https://www.gonaturalenglish.com/email