The letter r gives rise to very different sounds in Spanish and English. Even though the English /r/ is relatively easy to do, it is a source of trouble for many non-native speakers, one which all too often results in a very strong foreign accent. Besides, there is some confusion about when the /r/ has to be pronounced and when it’s silent. This mainly depends on the variety of English you speak. The two varieties most widely taught (British and American English) are very different in this respect. So, this point needs clarification too.
Fortunately, if we want to solve all these problems, there are very clear instructions to follow. Let’s start by listening to the difference between the English /r/ and the two different ways in which the Spanish /r/ can be pronounced.
r (post-alveolar, approximant, voiced)
Spelling: r (red, around), rr (mirror, worry), wr (write, wreck, wrong), rh (rhyme)
As you can see in the recordings above, there is a world of difference between the Spanish and the English /r/. To understand the reason for this, it’s important to realize that, while in Spanish both types of /r/ are clearly consonant sounds, the English /r/ is an approximant, which means that it has a vowel-like quality. Keep this idea in mind and it’ll help you a lot.
To produce an English /r/ correctly, you have to follow two rules:
1. The tongue never touches the palate. When you say a Spanish r the tip or your tongue always touches the roof of the mouth. If you say the Spanish word corro, there are several repeated touches because the rr is produced as a trill. If you say coro the tongue just touches the palate once (this movement is called a tap). In English, on the other hand, there is no such contact. The air flows freely over the tongue with very little obstruction. So, the most important piece of advice to produce the English /r/ correctly is this: never touch your palate with the tip of your tongue.
2. The tongue is placed further back in the mouth. The place of articulation is also different. In Spanish the tip of the tongue touches the alveolar ridge, whereas in English the tongue is placed in the post-alveolar region, a bit further back in the mouth (but there is no contact, as we’ve just said). Also, the tip of the tongue is slightly curved backwards.
Now, let’s learn how to say the /r/. As I mentioned before, the English /r/ has a lot in common with vowels, so I like to teach it by starting from a very well-known vowel sound: the /ɜː/ (if you don’t remember about it, you can check it here).
We’ll do it in two steps:
- Say a long /ɜː/.
- At some point, while you’re still saying the /ɜː/, raise your tongue a little, with the tip slightly curved backwards. Remember not to touch your palate. It must sound like this:
From /ɜː/ to /r/ (and then, rose)
Now, don’t lose this sound and say words like
Of course , the /r/ can also be taught from other points of departure. Let’s start from a Spanish r.
- Say a Spanish r.
- Move your tongue backwards.
- Say the English r without touching the palate. Like this:
From Spanish r to English r (and then, round)
Here are some examples of a native speaker pronouncing the /r/. Pay attention to the way she says the words roles and mirrored.
The roles of women in life, in political life, in business, everything, are absolutely mirrored by what we see in cinemas (Emma Thompson, BBC4).
I think the vowel-like quality of the English /r/ is pretty clear in Emma Thompson’s voice.
Now have a look at this recording (of a close friend or hers, by the way):
This definition of the obsessive rumination on what appears to be a single piece of damming evidence (Kenneth Branagh, BBC4).
As you can see, the /r/ in rumination is a good example of how this sound is pronounced, but the letter r in appears is silent. Why? This question leads us to the next point.
When is the r pronounced? The pronunciation of the letter r results in a very big division within the English language: the rhotic varieties and the non-rhotic varieties.
The rhotic varieties are those in which the letter r is always pronounced, every time it appears in the spelling. This mainly corresponds to the type of English spoken in the United States, Scotland, Ireland and Canada (even though the kind of r they use is not necessarily the same; actually it can be quite different).
The non-rhotic varieties, on the other hand, are those in which the letter r is only pronounced when it is followed by a vowel, remaining silent the rest of the times. Remember that we’re talking about sounds, not letters. Therefore, a silent letter like the e in more doesn’t count: the r in more is followed by a pause, so it isn’t pronounced. The non-rhotic the variety is spoken in England and other countries such as Australia and South Africa.
So, it’s interesting to remember that in British English the r is pronounced only when it’s followed by a vowel, whereas in American English is pronounced on every occasion it appears in the spelling.
Let’s see some examples:
Non-rhotic (British English) Rhotic (American English)
You are my worst nightmare You are my worst nightmare
Here are some examples by native speakers of British English. Notice that, when the letter r is followed by a consonant or a pause, it’s not pronounced (those cases are marked in red).
It’s young people who seem to enjoy it, just as much if not more (Emma Thompson, BBC4).
A seal’s flippers resemble our hands. We are all the same (A.S. Byatt, BBC4).
Hollywood has moved away so far from its early days (Emma Thompson, BBC4).
We have to say something, I think, about what puritanism is briefly and why they’re there (Simon Middleton, BBC4).
It’s sort of I’ve grown up with her work, and I think that there was something that felt incredibly natural speaking her words (Keira Knightley, BBC4).
Now have a look at this interesting example, in which the comparative adjective rarer is pronounced by writer Julian Barnes. The word has three r’s, but only the first two are pronounced. The vowel-like quality of the English r is crystal clear.
Why would you say that? Well, probably because it’s rarer (Rick Kleffel – Julian Barnes, KUSP).
Reintroducing the r. One very important point to bear in mind is that, whenever a word ending with a silent r is followed by a word beginning with a vowel, the r is reintroduced. Then it is pronounced and linked to the next sound. For that reason it’s called linking r. This a very good example:
there (silent r) there‿is (linking r)
And here you can appreciate this process (and also hear a couple of words where the r is silent) in native speakers’ voices:
Do you feel more‿in control? Do you feel that you are better‿actresses now? (John Wilson, BBC4)
There ‿is no answer sometimes. You just have to find it (Jeremy Irons, BBC4).