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How To Teach The R Sound (1)

It is never easy to master the pronunciation of a foreign language. True, it may contain many sounds that are very similar, or even identical, to those in your own language. The English “V” sound, for instance, is the same in French and German (though German uses the letter “w” to represent it). Yet even a European language such as Spanish requires a somewhat different pronunciation for the “V”: the V sound in that language lies somewhere between the English “B” and “V”.

The English/American “R” differs greatly in pronunciation from the “R” in other tongues, even European languages.  Standard German and French feature an “R” whose pronunciation involves the vibration of the uvula; Spanish, Italian, and many other languages require that the “R” be “rolled”.

Interestingly, none of these “R” sounds come naturally to children in any of those countries. In Spain, for example, some children need years to be able to roll their “R” well; some German and French children also have difficulties with their version of this sound.

The situation is no different in England or America. When I was a small child, I could not get the “R” just right, and pronounced it a bit like a “w” – something quite a few children do in my country, until they finally learn how to say it well.

Since people who are learning English as a foreign language will almost no doubt encounter at least some difficulty with our “R”, how might they learn to say it well from the very beginning, with a minimum of effort and stress?

The first thing the foreigner should be aware of is that the “R” in English is almost certainly not pronounced as it is in his or her mother tongue. Thus, from the start, the student of English as a foreign language should learn that the sound of the letter “R” has nothing whatsoever to do with that letter’s pronunciation in their language. This is an important point to make, since most people, when they see a letter, automatically associate that letter with its sound in their own tongue.

In order to keep this from happening, the teacher should concentrate on this letter and its sound in English in an intensive manner.

Some lucky students – those with a good ear, coupled with the ability to imitate sounds – will pick up the English or American “R” sound with no difficulty whatsoever, and will soon be mimicking it like the proverbial parrot. Other learners of English as a foreign language, however – and this may well be the majority – will have to struggle to produce it correctly.

It would be a mistake for the teacher to therefore skim over it, assuming that it can be learned at some later date.

Instead, this should be seen as a fruitful challenge for both student and teacher, one that will tax the student’s ability to analyze sounds, how they are pronounced, and how to reproduce them, and the teacher’s talent for bringing the student to the level of awareness that will make the conquering of this difficulty possible.

So how should the teacher proceed? Two ways can be attempted. The first is what I call “The Way of the Parrot”.

When you (the teacher) see that your student cannot pronounce the “R” sound well, do the following:

  1. Tell him (or her) to sit back in his chair, and relax. Then say: “Watch my mouth very carefully. I am going to say the word “really” (or any other word that begins with “R”) five times, slowly. I want you to listen carefully, while watching my lips. Do not think. Just relax, listen and observe. After the fifth time, I will point to you, and you will say it, just the way I did.”
  2. Then proceed to say “really” (or any other “r” word you may have chosen) very slowly, accentuating the way you form your lips to produce that sound. Say it very slowly, five times, leaving a couple of seconds between each repetition.
  3. After the fifth time, slowly point to the student, and say the word together with him.

With about 50% of students, this technique works quite well: you will hear that they have said the “r” word with the correct pronunciation of its initial sound.  Next, make them repeat that word a number of times. Then, take other words that begin with “R”. Have them say them. You will hear that some students, though they were able to pronounce the word “really” in the exercise, are not able to transfer the correct pronunciation of “r” to other words. No matter: Repeat the exercise, this time using another word.  Once they’ve got it, tell them to remember just the way they formed their lips to say the sound, and to practice it at home.

There will be some students who still are not able to pronounce their “R” well, even after doing the above exercise a number of times. These will be the people whose main skills do not lie in the area of “listening/repeating”; thus, “The Way of the Parrot” may well prove fruitless for them.

What should the teacher do with such pupils at this point? Simply giving up is NOT an option! And there’s no need to do so, for there is another way, one that is a perfect complement to our “parrot” approach. This other method will be the subject of a second article, part two of How To Teach The R Sound.

Written by David Bolton for TEFL.net December 2011
David Bolton has been teaching languages for over thirty years, in Germany, Spain, and most recently, Japan. He has always sought out, and regularly employed, the most practical methods, including techniques to expand his students’ ability to learn. At his site, www.language-learning-tips.com, you can get a free EBook about many different aspects of foreign language learning.

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TEFL.net : TEFL Articles : Teacher Technique : How To Teach The R Sound (1)