Wednesday 25 March 2009

pronunciation of r

There are some emails that I receive that ask simple questions for which the answers are complicated.
Hello Sir
I am k***** [name removed]. My native language is not English so I have a problem in the pronunciation of word "r". I want to know that where we should pronounce it and where not and what are rules


[Obviously s/he means not the word r but the letter r.]
Where should the EFL student pronounce the sound r? What advice should one give? It all depends.
• For a simple life, and if your model is American English, pronounce r wherever the letter r is written.
• However, if your model is RP or a similar form of BrE, or Australian or New Zealand English, or to fit in with those around you in Africa (for example), then you should pronounce an r-sound only if the sound that follows is a vowel sound. So there should be an r-sound in red, arrive, very, tree, address, purity, but not in hard, firm, north, persuade, standard, modern. At the end of a word — as in better, far, near — you should not pronounce r if the word is on its own or at the end of a sentence; but you may pronounce one if the word is followed, without a break, by another word beginning with a vowel sound.
More importantly, what is your purpose in learning English? If you just want to understand and be understood, then pronounce all the rs. If you want to fit in with native speakers in some particular place, then you must learn to do as they do. If you want to pass school examinations for which the examiners require that some particular type of pronunciation be used, then you must fit in with their requirements.
It is important to learn not just where to pronounce r but also how to pronounce it. If, as your name suggests, your language is Arabic, which uses a tapped r-sound (ɾ), it is worthwhile trying to acquire an English-style approximant r (ɹ).
I am afraid an answer along these lines would disappoint K****, who would doubtless prefer a clear short answer. And anyhow his/her command of English would probably not be high enough to understand fully what I say.
Probably a better answer would have been
Go and ask your teacher. Or ask your friends.


  1. Since many teachers of EFL are neither native speakers nor pronunciation specialists, and may in addition have to teach large classes during brief periods; and since an EFL student's friends are likely to be even less expert, the better answer would have been: Find a dialect coach or other accent specialist teacher.

    This answer is not as self-serving as it might seem; there are plenty of good teachers and coaches who could help this student. I'm not touting for business!

  2. I think this person would get by with an alveolar tap.

  3. @ Amy - Yes, fine, if s/he was in an English-speaking country. But in Saudi? At his/her vey elementary level?
    @ Piscees - It's OK in some positions. But the typical Arabic pronunciation of farmer as [faɾmɪɾ] does not sound nice in English. I can't be the only person who finds it a very irritating feature of Arabic English.

  4. Hello, John! I cannot believe that you have a blog! You are one of those people I really admire. I did not know you had a blog. You are in the same 'league' of great writers I admire. I remember when I had my phonetics dictionary, while in college, and on its cover was your name, I thought this man must be a genius. It's really great to have found your blog!

    I am Bruno from Argentina and my Phonetics professor at college was really great, his pronunciation was as good as a native from London.

    The study of phonetics has helped me a lot with my singing since I am a musician who writes lyrics in English.

    Lastly, my question is: how could I know how good is my pronunciation? Sometimes I listen to the pronunciation of Radiohead's, Coldplay's, Pink Floyd's singers, but sometimes they 'americanise' their pronunciations. What singer do you approve of with a good pronunciation?

    I studied translation for 4 years, so if you ever need something translated into Spanish, I'd be glad to help you, and of course, for free.

    Kind regards,

  5. I have indeed asked this question of you, too, at some point.

    I think I'm largely non-rhotic now after having had the aha-erlebnis at some point. My "r"s are still very variable, though. I believe I have a tendency to essentially trill them when I want to make sure they get pronounced.

  6. @ moonlight: there is nothing wrong with americanizing one's pronunciation. Singers do it all the time. (But Cliff Richard is/was notorious for overdoing it, e.g. pronouncing /r/ in "ma" and "pa", "er bachelor boy".)
    @ sili: non-German-speakers might like to know that an Aha-Erlebnis is what we nowadays call an "epiphany" (previously "the penny dropped", "it dawned on me"), a sudden insight.

  7. "Yes, fine, if s/he was in an English-speaking country. But in Saudi? At his/her vey elementary level?"

    Hmmmm. I made my comment not knowing where the speaker was located. Nor, indeed, how elementary his knowledge of English was. (It didn't seem very elementary from his question as you quoted it.)

    I thought the long answer you wrote was just dandy. I'm not at all sure it wasn't what your correspondent wanted. But when it comes to the clear, short answer, while you may have a point, my assumption is that anyone who is learning EFL, and who is motivated enough to ask a pronunciation expert (you) a specific, sensible question about English pronunciation, is someone who, no matter where they are currently located, plans at some point to speak English with speakers of English as a native language, and who wishes to be readily understood when they do.

    Since, regrettably, most speakers of English as a native language have little to no understanding of what lies behind many kinds of errors in English pronunciation, little patience with people whom they find difficult to understand, and little motivation to acquire either understanding or patience, the burden is on the student to learn to speak "correctly." This is not something his teacher, still less his friends, are likely to be qualified to help him with.

    Many of my EFL-speaking clients come to me very frustrated at the poor quality of pronunciation instruction they received when learning English. They may well have emerged with an excellent grasp of the language itself, but they have been taught pronunciation very badly. Perhaps their mistakes have been overlooked, and so they never learned before coming to me what mistakes they have been making. Perhaps they have been taught "rules" that aren't accurate (although seemingly expedient). This sort of thing can make it very difficult for an EFL speaker to get a job, do a job, obtain a promotion, or to have a conversation without being asked to repeat themselves over and over again.

    So from my point of view it is not only efficient but far more helpful to give someone accurate information the first time (ideally together with the tools to use it, as otherwise it could indeed be confusing).

    In the case of your correspondent, I still think the best course (assuming you don't want to send him your original answer) is to direct them to someone who has the expertise, time, and willingness to give them what they need. That lets out his teacher, or why would he have come to you? As for his friends, well ... really, why assume they know more than he does? I'd be shocked to find they knew even as much.

  8. Thank you for the vocab lesson.

    I'm extremely bad with synonyms (and rhymes). Once I latch onto one word I don't seem to be able to kick my brain out of the groove to find one that fits better.

    I don't actually speak German ...

  9. I agree with Amy on the point that many native speakers (of English) don't seem to have the patience to "try" to understand non-native speakers who might have an accent, let alone correcting them. Sometimes they just refuse to understand. And even if they want to correct their non-native friends' pronunciation, it's highly unlikely that they will have the skill to describe the errors in a practically way, a bit like the "controlled rolling grunt" post.

    I remember once a friend of mine tried to help me with words like "music, tune, few", as I used to pronounce them as /miusik/, /tSun/, /fiu/. So he described the semi-vowel, /j/ to me, but it didn't work out for me, and after 10mins, he gave up.

    Some RP speakers have what I thought is called "alveolar tap", so what is "tapped r" and what is the difference between the two?


  10. @kevin: An "alveolar tap" is the same as a "tapped r". It would be OK to use it in English before a vowel sound (as in "very, carry, arrive, bread"), but it sounds very odd before a consonant (as in "north, start, Oxford, murderer"). That is why I would encourage speakers of Arabic to learn to make an English approximant r.

  11. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with extra information? It is extremely helpful for me. american english pronunciation

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