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Advice from an Accent Coach: The American R

by Judy Ravin | | Accent Acquisition

An accent coach may tell you that another way to think about “accent reduction” is “accent acquisition”, learning the articulation techniques to produce the sounds that differ from other languages. As with all languages, American English is characterized by common phonological features. With the exception of a few regional dialects, speakers with an American accent utilize the techniques and speech patterns discussed below.

Sounds corresponding to the letter ‘r’:
An American English accent coach will teach that the sounds corresponding to the letter ‘r’ do not have the tip of the tongue touch any part of the mouth. Rather, the tongue is raised and pulled back so the sides of the tongue touch the back teeth. When producing an ‘r’, airflow is not constricted; the tongue does not tap the roof of the mouth or trill (vibrate).

Why is ‘r’ important? Because ‘r’ is a high frequency sound in English, meaning that it occurs more often than most other sounds. It’s a difficult sound to learn (even American children learn ‘r’ late in the language acquisition process), as you can’t see the movement of your tongue. This is different than ‘th’, for example, where you can see the tip of your tongue between your teeth. Also, ‘r’ requires a tremendous amount of muscle movement. You can actually feel the tension in your jaw. Here’s a helpful hint: think of the ‘r’ sound as that of a growling dog.

In addition to consonant ‘r’, there are seven different combinations of ‘r’ sounds. They occur when ‘r’ is pronounced after a vowel, and include the following:
‘er’ (“firm”)
‘ar’ (“farm”)
‘or’ (“form”)
‘eer’ (“fear”)
‘air’ (“fair”)
‘ire’ (“fire”)
‘ower’ (“flower”)

Pronouncing ‘r’ after vowels, and at the end of words, is the reason American English is classified as “rhotic”, i.e., saying the ‘r’. This is a primary difference between American English and British English, as British speakers tend to omit the ‘r’ after vowels and at the end of a word. In the British accent, “father” is pronounced “fathuh”.

The following are some key words with ‘r after a vowel’ used in daily speech: early, first, work, third, world, learn, large, part, are, and form. Have fun practicing and remember to sound like a growling dog

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