Free Sounds Guidebook

Best American R /ɹ/ Pronunciation Practice

(Video Transcript)


How to Pronounce the R /ɹ/ Consonant

I’m going to play something for you. It’s a sound that many people around the world seem to be drawn to. This particular sound seems to excite people and make their eyes get bigger with anticipation. Have a listen.


It’s the sound of a car engine, revving up. What is it about that sound that people love so much? 


I don’t know for sure, but it seems to be true. Many people simply love the sound of a car.


Now, I’m going to play another sound for you. This sound is similar to the car engine revving up, but instead of making people feel excited, this sound seems to invoke fear or dread in some people. Have a listen.


That’s right, it’s the American R consonant. Maybe not quite the same as a car engine, but you get the idea. It’s possibly the most dreaded of all sounds of American English because it might be one of the most challenging sounds of American English to pronounce accurately. 


But today, we’re diving deep into the American R consonant. I want this sound to be exciting, not dreadful. So if you have a negative association with the American R consonant, try to flip the script a little bit. This is a new sound, not the old American R that you’ve been struggling to pronounce. This is something new and exciting, and it will be easy for you to imitate. 


Whether you're learning English as a second language or just looking to perfect your pronunciation, you will benefit from this video. And by the end of this lesson, you'll know all the steps to pronouncing a perfect American R sound. Let's get started!


The American R /ɹ/ and Spanish R

First, let’s talk about what the American R isn’t.


It isn’t rolled, trilled, or flapped. That means, the tongue tip does not touch the roof of the mouth. In some languages, like Spanish or Italian, the R consonant is trilled, like this, “RRRRR”. And sometimes the R is flapped, like the sound that’s in the English word “water”. But in American English, the American R is not rolled, trilled, or flapped. It sounds like this:




It’s a consistent sound, RRRRRR, and you can hold it out for as long as you have air. 


The American R /ɹ/ and French R

The American R isn’t produced in the throat. 


In some languages, like French, the R sound is pronounced in the very back of the mouth as the tongue touches the uvula, that soft, dangly part of the roof of the mouth. This type of tongue position produces an R sound that can be described as guttural or throaty, which is very different from the more mouth-focused and rounded American R.


The American R /ɹ/ and Japanese R

The American R isn’t an L consonant or a W consonant.


In some languages, like Japanese, the L and R consonants can be pronounced interchangeably. This can make both of these consonants challenging for these speakers to pronounce consistently in American English because in English, the R and L are distinct, separate sounds. You can’t substitute one for the other. 


The same is true for the W consonant. The R consonant is not the W consonant, even though they share the same lip placement. See how my lips round for the W consonant:


Water, water, water


And my lips also round for the R consonant:


Right, right, right


The lip placement is the same for both the R and the W consonants, but the tongue placement is very different.


Lip placement of American R /ɹ/

So let’s break down the pronunciation of the American R consonant, step by step.


First, the lips are rounded, similar to the lip positions of the W consonant or the OO vowel. This lip rounding helps to shape the sound as it travels out the mouth. While it’s true that the lip rounding isn’t absolutely vital to the pronunciation of the American R - I can still make a pretty good R sound without using my lips, like this: RRRRR - the lip rounding will help to finish the sound and make it as accurate as possible.


Tongue placement of American R /ɹ/

Second, the tongue. Let’s divide the tongue in half. The front half has the tongue tip, and the back half is the back of the tongue. I want you to focus on the back half of the tongue now. This back half is in a wide shape, meaning the sides of the back half of the tongue spread out towards the inside of the teeth, like this.


As you pronounce this sound, the sides of the back of the tongue touch the inside of the upper back teeth, or maybe as far up as the gums. Now, this is important because the sides of the tongue actually push or brace against the inside of the teeth as you pronounce the American R. So you should definitely feel that the sides of the back half of the tongue are touching something - teeth, gums, or both - and are pushing against it.


Now I want you to focus on the front half of the tongue, and specifically, the tongue tip. Now, forget about the tongue tip. The tongue tip does not participate in the American R consonant, at least not in the way that I pronounce it. Just trust me on this - don’t think about the tongue tip. The focus is on the back half of the tongue - that’s what makes the American R consonant. 


Bunched tongue position

Now, why am I asking you to forget about the tongue tip? Some of you may have learned that there are two ways to make the American R consonant. One way is called the bunched tongue position, which is what I’m teaching you in this video, and the bunched tongue does not use the tongue tip to make the R consonant. All that happens is the back of the tongue pulls up and back, just like I’ve described, and the front of the tongue just comes along for the ride. The tip doesn’t move up or down; it’s neutral.


Retroflex tongue position

The other way to pronounce the American R consonant is called the retroflex tongue position, and this does use the tongue tip. The retroflex tongue position involves the tongue tip curling up towards the roof of the mouth. 


The retroflex tongue position is also used in other languages for other sounds. For example, Hindi has retroflex consonants that use a similar tongue curling position, including a retroflex R consonant. 


But my opinion is that a retroflex tongue placement causes the American R consonant to sound muffled or distorted. I think a bunched tongue placement results in a much clearer R consonant, so that’s what I teach, and that’s what I want you to try to do today.


So again, to summarize the tongue positioning and shape: The back half of the tongue makes the American R consonant. The back half of the tongue is wide, and the sides push against the inside of the upper back teeth. As you maintain this contact with the inside of the upper back teeth, the entire tongue slides back, and the middle of the tongue arches up towards the roof of the mouth. You may feel that the sides of the tongue actually touch the gums - that’s okay, too. Maintain the wide shape and the contact with the inside of the back teeth and /or gums. 


Forget about the front part of the tongue. It doesn’t participate in this sound. Focus on the back half of the tongue.


Jaw placement of American R /ɹ/ 

Third, the jaw placement. Now here’s where I see a lot of non-native speakers make a mistake. In an effort to move the tongue up and back, they try to recruit the jaw to help out, so they end up doing something like this:




See how my jaw drops and moves back as I say the R sound?


That should not be happening.


The jaw doesn’t really move a whole lot when pronouncing the American R. It’s open, but it’s stationary. The movement happens with the tongue and the lips; not the jaw. You can see some movement in my chin when I pronounce R because as I round my lips, my chin moves down, but my jaw bone is not moving or opening very much as I say the sound. 


Muscular tension of American R /ɹ/

And fourth, let’s talk about tension. Many non-native speakers introduce unnecessary tension within the throat when pronouncing the American R sound, but try the opposite. Relax the throat. The American R is made in the mouth, not the throat, so all you should be feeling in your throat is the vibration of your vocal cords as your voice turns on to make the R sound. The throat doesn’t squeeze or strain. The throat is relaxed.


The only place where any amount of tension is felt is within the back half of the tongue as it braces itself against the inside of the upper back teeth or gums. But even this isn’t full, 100% tension. But the tongue is contracted, and any time a muscle contracts, the sensation is of some amount of tension. But don’t focus on pushing your tongue against the back teeth as hard as you can - that’s not the right sound - and that will probably tire you out very quickly. You need just enough muscular effort that allows you to get a good push against the inside of the teeth. 


American R /ɹ/ troubleshooting tips

Okay, so now you know every step of the pronunciation of the American R consonant. Let’s cover some troubleshooting tips.


If you’re not sure if your lips are rounding enough or at all, then you should use a mirror as you practice. Say the OO vowel a few times and notice how your lips round into a circle. Use that same lip placement as you say the American R consonant.


If you’re not sure if your jaw is dropping or moving backward as you say the R sound, then again, just a mirror so you can watch what your jaw is doing. You can also put your hand under your chin to monitor for jaw drop. If you feel your jaw push against your hand, then you know you’re dropping it too much. 


If you’re not sure if your tongue is in the correct bunched position, here’s a trick that can help. Start by saying the vowel “eeee”. Notice how the tongue is high in the mouth and the sides of the back part of the tongue touch the inside of the upper teeth. Now simply slide your tongue backwards along the inside of your upper teeth, making sure to keep the sides of your tongue touching the back teeth the entire time. Now say the vowel “eee” and slide your tongue back as you say it, like this:




EEERRRR, RRR, RR, RRRR. There’s your American R.


Let's practice the American R consonant together. Say "RRR" and notice the position of your tongue. It should feel like it's floating just below the roof of your mouth, and the sides should be bracing against the inside of the upper teeth or gum line. 


Now feel the lips as they round into a circle.




American R /ɹ/ consonant practice words

Now that we have the positioning right, let's practice with some words. And since repetition is important when learning new skills, I’m going to give you plenty of practice using single words that contain the R consonant. First, I’m going to hold out the R sound for a longer period of time, and I want you to do the same thing. Hold out the R consonant. Then I’ll say the words again at my normal pace, and I want you to imitate that as well. I’ll show the words up close so you can see the pronunciation. 


























American R /ɹ/ consonant practice phrases / sentences

Great job! Now if that was too easy for you, let’s make things more challenging and practice the R consonant within phrases and short sentences. This might be where you feel that your pronunciation breaks down a bit because now you have to think more about linking syllables together, and during the link between a vowel and the R consonant, you might find that you use a tapped R, or a W or L sound. So I’ll go slowly at first and hold out the R consonant, and I want you to do the same thing when you imitate me. Hold out the R consonant. Then I’ll say the phrases again at my normal pace, and I want you to imitate that as well. These phrases will also be filmed up close so you can see the pronunciation.


The red house.

A rainy day.

I’m ready.

This road is bumpy.

Go around.

He arranged the music.

In the garage.

I’m proud of you.

The tree is tall.

My bracelet.


Nice job! 

Remember, practice makes perfect. Keep practicing the American R consonant and record yourself as you practice. Don’t give up if it’s challenging for you right now because over time, you will notice improvement.


Free American Accent Training

If you want even more practice with the American R consonant, I’ve got good news. Check out the description for how you can download my free Sounds of American English Guidebook, where you’ll learn how to pronounce every sound of American English, including the R consonant, with audio recordings, pictures, MRIs, IPA charts, and more. It’s a fantastic, free resource that will really help boost your American English pronunciation skills, so check out the links in the description below.


Work with Julie at English Pro

And if you’re interested in really diving deep into all areas of American English pronunciation and learning the American accent, then check out English Pro, my online accent training program. You’ll receive training in all areas of the American accent plus you can attend weekly live English classes and work with me, one-to-one, in the class. Check out the description for links to learn more about English Pro.


Thanks for watching everyone! If you found this video helpful, please give it a thumbs up and subscribe to my channel for more pronunciation tips. That’s a fantastic, no-cost way that you can show your support and let me know that you liked this video and want me to make more just like it. You can also leave a comment below with any sounds you're struggling with, and I'll make sure to cover them in future videos. Keep practicing, and I’ll see you next time!

Julie Cunningham | San Diego Voice and Accent Julie Cunningham | San Diego Voice and Accent Julie Cunningham | San Diego Voice and Accent

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