The Rhotic R (American R)

Many languages have a “trilled” r sound, where the tip of the tongue touches just behind the front teeth (like the /d/) in quick, repeated motions. To pronounce the rhotic r, or “American /r/,” however, you must produce it from the back of the mouth, with the tip of the tongue touching nothing.  

Although this is often called the “American r,” this same sounds occurs in British English, just not as frequently! People with an American accent pronounce a rhotic r in words like car, bear, fear, hard, form, and firstNon-rhotic speakers, however, like those who speak British English or Australian English do not pronounce the /r/ in those words. In other words, Americans (and Canadians) pronounce /r/ in all positions, while non-rhotic speakers pronounce /r/ only if it is followed by a vowel sound.

How to produce the rhotic r

If you find this sound tricky, you’re not alone! It’s a sound that native English speakers commonly struggle to pronounce as children.  There are two different positions you can try to produce this /r/ sound, so choose the one that’s easiest for you to make:

  1. Curl your tongue back slightly, keeping it tense.  OR
  2. Keep the front of your tongue flat and press the back of your tongue against the back teeth.   

One method that has proved helpful to many English learning is this: 

  1. Start by pronouncing a “long e” sound 
  2. While producing that ee sound, gradually curl the tip of your tongue back, making sure that it touches nothing.  You should naturally produce the /r/ at the end! 

Words that you can practice with are: ear, beer, peer

Reminder: The r is always pronounced in American English, even at the end of words, like in more, far, mother, and before a consonant, like in morning, survive and thirty. Again, this is not the case in British English!

Check out these articles to learn more about the differences in r pronunciation:

Practice:

  • We’re in the red this quarter.
  • They’re bringing up the rear.
  • It’s a race against time. 
  • That’s about the right height.* 
  • That’s really easy writing. 
  • Let’s find a workaround
  • Please correct that amount.   
  • What time does she arrive? 
  • It’s a pilot program?

*If you happen to be a native speaker of Portuguese, you may find this video helpful in distinguishing the H and R sounds.  

Need help? 

Got all that?  Do you need a little more personalized feedback to improve the rhotic r pronunciation?  To learn more about English pronunciation and practice it in conversation, join SpeakUp, a dynamic program that engages you in authentic conversations on relevant topics and provides you with feedback from a professional and experienced English teacher.  The first week is free for you to try it out! 

Anita Collins

Anita Collins

Anita is a long-time English teacher and language enthusiast from Canada, currently living in the multilingual city of Montreal. She majored in linguistics, dabbled in translation, and has been teaching students from all over the world for over a decade. She now spends each morning trying to balance her two loves: planning the next trip and spoiling her beagle. The rest of her day she spends on curriculum design and language classes, with the beagle underfoot.
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