As a speech language pathologist, the sound that children typically have the most difficulty with, and the one most difficult to remediate is the phoneme /R/. One of the later developing sounds, it is not considered late unless a child does not have it by age 7. It can also be a challenging sound for a second language learner to master as many different languages pronounce /R/ differently, but to sound truly fluent, we must master this phoneme.
Let’s talk about /R/ for a minute…
/R/ is considered a rhotic consonant and there are 4 types**:
1. Alveolar or Retroflex Approximant (our typical American r)
2. Trilled (often called rolled) and found in no less than ten languages (my favorite being the
Scottish). I am currently learning the trilled /R/ for my Italian class. It is slow going…
3. Tap or flap (the word /pero/ in Spanish would use the tap/flap, while the word /perro/
would use the trilled; one is much faster/quicker than the other.
4. Uvular, velar or glottal approximate or fricative (our French /R/)
The French /R/
If you had been born in France, or exposed to the French language during your initial language acquisition period you would have a beautiful French /r/ naturally. Infants are naturally wired to be able to make any and every sound. What happens is, we tune into the ones we hear and the rest, fall to the wayside. Just like other skills and talents, learning these now “foreign” sounds comes more easily to some language learners than others.
How is the French /R/ different from an American/English /R/ sound
The French /r/ is produced in the back and with a guttural or –for lack of a better word– “phlegmmy” quality. It is made in the back of the mouth, where /g/ is made, with the back of the tongue elevating to make the /r/ sound (as it does in English). The difference is, while a retroflexive American /r/ is clean sounding /errrrrr/, the French /r/ is throaty, like an /h/ has been thrown on top of it. That is not a terribly technical description (the Internet is already full of those) but that should give you an idea of how it is differing from the /R/ you are used to producing. It is this Guttural /R/ sound in my opinion that is one of the reasons the French language is so beautiful to listen to.
If you are having trouble making a good French /r/, try to “overshoot” it. Really over emphasize it in order to learn the production. You can tame it down once you have learned the mechanics of it. This is how I learned and I remember telling my professor, that doing this made me sound like the Chef from the Little Mermaid, but it was a great way to train my tongue what to do. Remember, that just like our American /r/, the French /r/ is easier to make when it is proceeded or followed by certain vowels.
Personally, I think French /r/ in isolation, followed by /r/ at the end of the word is easier to produce than at the beginning of the word, so I improved my French by practicing those words with emphasis on the /r/ when I would run across them in vocabulary, then the /r/ at the beginning seemed easier to produce.
Here is a great video that describes nicely the mechanics of making a French /r/.
With most vowels, I have finally reached a really lovely French /r/–and no longer sound like our Disney Chef friend. There are still a few vowel/R combinations, and especially words with multiple /r/ sounds that give me trouble, but my practice is definitely paying off. My Italian /r/ is another story…practice makes perfect, so I will keep at it, as I hope you do as well.
Want more information? Check out these online articles that offer more tips to making an authentic French /R/. I highly recommend watching the videos to hear how an accurate French /r/ sounds.
http://www.wikihow.com/Pronounce-the-letter-R-in-French (nice accompanying video)
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