Rhotics Ready: Getting a Handle on the Consonant "r"

by Jime Palacios

Cross section of the human head showing the parts involved with pronunciation

Rhotics - sounds that are produced when the character "r" is written - are some of the most difficult sounds to learn when studying a second language. These sounds are the trills, the central approximants, the taps, the flaps, and the fricatives of phonetics. If this list of phrases seems a bit daunting, take comfort: language acquisition may be a slow process but it is something that can be incredibly fruitful. After all, language is powerful. It is the sword of Shakespeare, a way for Einstein to tell us that E=mc2, and the means through which we express love.

What makes rhotics so difficult to learn is its variation across languages. The sound "r" can be produced in Spanish as a rapid tapping of the tip of tongue on the roof of the mouth, while in English an "r" is produced by a prolonged, smooth current of air that glides over the centre of the tongue. And, in most Asian languages, such as Japanese or Korean, the use of "r" is not distinguished from its lateral approximant brother, "l".

It is important to become aware of these subtle nuances when beginning the study of a second language because pronunciation is a key part of learning a language. Fortunately, for those learning English, there is only one rhotic sound. Those of you seeking to study Toda, however, will have to learn three different rhotic trills.

There are several ways to practice and learn pronunciation, ranging from immersion, through television, radio programs and travel, to taking a formal course in your second language. Taking a course is relatively simple in England as English language schools are located across the country, allowing you to take an English course in London or elsewhere.

The most tried and true advice for language learning focuses on practice. Find yourself a language partner who will encourage you to use the language skills you have already acquired and assist you in correcting the ones you have yet to master. English language schools (more info) tend to have formal and informal opportunities to do this exact thing.

However you go about reconciling your "r" with the new one in your second or third language, don't forget how incredible it is to be able to communicate with an entirely new group of people. Right now there is a whole repository of reading and recitation material just waiting for you to round this language corner. And if English is the second language you are learning, mastering the "r" means you'll be able to say that last sentence with the fluency of a native speaker!

References

Ball, Martin J. and Joan Rahilly. Phonetics: The Science of Speech. Arnold: London, 1999.

Catford, J.C. A Practical Introduction to Phonetics. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2001.

Ladefoged, Peter. Vowels and Consonants. Blackwell Publishing Inc: Oxford, 2006.

Ladefoged, Peter and Ian Maddieson. The Sounds of the World's Languages. Blackwell Publishers Inc.: Oxford, 1996

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