Caution! The R sound is one of the most difficult sounds to learn. American children spend years learning the sound, and usually do not master it until age 7 or 8. Speech therapists can spend months or years working with clients on making a correct R sound. Many adults never learn to make a correct R sound (take Barbara Walters or Jonathon Ross, for example!) So I cannot teach everything you need to know about making the R sound. What I can do is share with you tips and techniques that may help you to improve your American R sound.
The R sound changes slightly depending on where we say it in the word. When it comes after a vowel, the sound is called “R-Colored” or “R-Controlled” or even “Vocalic R”. “R-Colored” sounds move in your mouth so you must move your tongue. Make your vowel sound, then move into R by EITHER pulling your tongue back (retract) OR by curling your tongue tip up (retroflex). Rounding the lips helps when making the R. If you say “ear” – ee(y)er – you start with “ee”. Your lips are spread wide for “ee” then they move into a rounded position for the “er” sound.
Let me explain the two positions you can use for R. There is retracted and retroflex. Here is an illustration of a hand making the retracted motion. You will pull your tongue high and back. Your tongue should be touching the insides of your top teeth on the right and on the left. There is a groove down the center of your tongue. This is where the air flows out. Be sure to round your lips on the R.
These illustrations show a cue for you on how to hold you tongue. This is to remind you of how to hold your tongue for R, when saying an R word.
Here is an illustration of a hand making the retrofex motion. For retroflex R you leave your tongue where it is and curl up the tip. Basically you are making a cup shape with your tongue. Push the air out your mouth and round your lips.
Now both ways of holding the tongue can produce a correct R sound, so try each. Usually the retroflex is used for R -Colored vowels, but if you use the retracted, that’s ok too. What is more important than the position is the sound you make.
Now try using R words (either one) with R-Colored vowels. We call these R-Colored vowels because the sound of the vowel will change slightly. The R will influence, or color, the vowel. This is normal and expected in American English.
Listen to the AR, OR and ER words here.
Be careful! With the following words, Americans add a “Y” sound into these. So listen carefully and you will hear me add in a “y” sound. It helps us to pronounce these words.
AIR words (AIYER)
EAR words (EEYER)
IRE words (IYER)
Listen to the AIR, EAR and IRE words here.