The Most Frequently Used Sound in English, and Why You Should Master


This is a guest post by Cheryl Posey.  She is a licensed and nationally certified speech pathologist that focuses on Accent Reduction and Communication Skills Training.  You can find and follow her on her Speaking Your Best

If you speak English as a second language, you naturally have difficulty pronouncing some sounds. This is because you do not have these sounds in your native language.  Some sounds occur more frequently than others, and these are the sounds you should work on mastering first, as they will have the greatest impact on your spoken English.

R sound
Image courtesy of marin /
The “r” sound is probably the most frequently used sound in English.  It occurs as a consonant, as in the words “red” and “around”; it occurs as a vowel, as in the words “mother” and “bird”; it occurs in diphthongs, as in the words “fair”, “year” and “before”; and it occurs in consonant blends as in the words “three”, “scratch”, and “practice.”  The “r” is everywhere!
If English is your second language, you most likely are pronouncing the “r” very differently than how it is pronounced in English. Most languages use the tip of the tongue to form the “r”, and the lips remain flat and relaxed. The tongue tip quickly hits the roof of the mouth just behind the upper front teeth either once, which is called “rolling” or several times, which is called “trilling.” Languages such as Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Portuguese are just a few that form the “r” in this way.  Other languages, such as German and French form the “r” with the back of the tongue against the back of the throat, with the lips again remaining flat and relaxed.
To form the American English “r”, follow these guidelines:
  1. Place your lips in a circle.  Do not forget this step, as it is a very important one!  As soon as you make a circle with your lips, your lower jaw will automatically move slightly forward.  It is not something that you will need to force your jaw to do; this occurs naturally.  It is important, however, to be aware of the movements your lower jaw makes as you form the “r” sound.  
  2. Keep your teeth fairly close together; they should only be slightly separated.
  3. With your lips, teeth and jaw in place, raise the front of your tongue up toward the roof of your mouth, but not touching it.  This is the most difficult part!  If your tongue tip touches anything, it will sound like rolling and will be different from the American English “r.”
When learning how to form any new sound, you should have a picture of what your mouth should look like, as well as what your tongue should be doing inside your mouth, so that you can copy it. When you practice saying the sound aloud, you should always practice with audio or video of someone who can pronounce it correctly.  That way, you will not be reinforcing the accented sound.
Question:  Do you find "r" to be a stumbling block in your speech?

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