In the Indo-European family of languages, to which English belongs, / r / has mostly remained intact in the daughter languages since the time of Indo-European unity. This is because / r / sounds tend to resist change. A look at the descendants of the Indo-European word for father illustrates this point:
The point here is that the / r / has not changed a lot over the last 5 to 10 thousand years. Other sounds have changed radically, as you can see in the different examples, but / r / is still intact.
1. Is / r / the most difficult sound in English?
Of all the sounds of English, / r / is probably the most difficult to pronounce correctly. English-speaking children sometimes struggle with this sound long after they have mastered the other sounds, which is why you often hear them say things like “wabbit” instead of “rabbit.” It should therefore be no surprise that students of English-as-a-second-language also struggle to pronounce / r /, and these learners face additional challenges because of interference from their native languages (more on which below).
2. The relationship between / r / and / l /
A thorough treatment of / r / would not be complete without pointing out that there is a connection between it and / l /, and this relationship is the source of problems for many students of English. / r / and / l / are called liquid consonants, and they are grouped together in this category because they tend to occur in similar positions and behave in similar ways.
English has two liquids, but some languages, such as Japanese and Korean, have only one liquid and do not make a distinction between the two sounds.
Students who speak these languages therefore tend to mix up / r / and / l / when they speak English. These sounds can even get mixed up in languages that do make a distinction, such as Puerto Rican Spanish. Students who face this type of challenge will have to devote a bit more time to studying the liquids.
3. The many variants of / r /
Unlike other sounds, / r / comes in many varieties that often seem hardly alike. If you listen to its pronunciation in Scottish English, French, and American English, you might even conclude that there’s no similarity at all. However, most people still perceive these sounds as variations of / r / and discern a connection between them. Be that as it may, the various / r / sounds tend to present challenges for learners of English. For example, a Frenchman will often continue pronouncing it the French way when speaking English. People who face this type of problem will therefore have to spend some time learning exactly how to make the English / r / sound (more on which below).
4. The articulation of English / r /
The best way to improve your pronunciation of / r / is to study the position of the tongue in relation to the roof of the mouth. It should be slightly curled back and come close to making contact with the alveolar ridge (the area just behind the teeth). It is important that no contact be made with the roof of the mouth, as the English / r / is an approximant. In languages such as Spanish, Russian, Arabic and many more, the tongue actually makes contact with the roof of the mouth, so it might take practice for these learners to get used to the English / r /. Sometimes it helps to study a diagram to see the position of the tongue, jaw, lips, etc.
5. Rhotic and non-rhotic accents in English
Last of all, I will discuss English accents that drop the / r / when it occurs in syllable-final position in a word. / r / occurring in this environment was lost in England during the 18th century, long after the Americas were colonized, which is why American English does not have this feature. British and Australian English are both well-known examples of this phenomenon. What happens is that the / r / is lost in syllable-final position, but the vowel preceding it is then lengthened a bit to compensate for the loss. The word car is therefore pronounced /ka:/.
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