How do you make the /r/ sound in the best spoken English? Different English accents seem to do quite different things.

There are several different /r/ sounds and English accents around the world make use of them all. More surprising is that all are found in accents within the United Kingdom itself. The problem is they’re all written with the same alphabet letter ‘r’. Here are the possibilities:

Flapped /r/  Tap your tongue tip once against your upper tooth ridge. Found in Scouse as spoken in the Liverpool area. Think of the Beatles.

Trilled /r/   Your tongue tip flaps rapidly back and forth several times on your tooth ridge. Scottish English is the best example of this.

Resonant /r/  Curl your tongue tip upwards and aim at the centre roof of your mouth. Do not touch the tip against anything. The ‘gentle growl’ is like a vowel sound. Received Pronunciation, or the Queen’s English, makes use of this.

Retroflex /r/  Think of it as a strong resonant /r/. Your tongue tip curls both up and back, as though pointing at the back of your head. This is typical of Northern American English, which was heavily influenced by Irish settlers. It’s a feature of Irish English and Northern Irish in particular. However, the Irish don’t ‘growl’ the /r/ nearly as strongly as the typical American speaker.

There is one more /r/ sound that is worth a mention. It’s called a velar /r/ and is what you will hear in French. You friction air between your soft palate and the back of your tongue. It’s a feature of Welsh English as well but it’s never spelt with an ‘r’ in English accents. Think of the mythical Loch Ness monster. Other English speakers substitute a /k/ if unable to imitate this sound correctly.

Okay, those may be the possibilities for ‘r’ but which one is used in the ‘best’ spoken English? It depends on the variety you are speaking.

  • American English uses the retroflex /r/ and this is correct for these accents.
  • British English regards the resonant /r/ as the best for general English. Most speakers accept this implicitly although the politically correct might protest!
  • Standard Neutral English uses resonant /r/ as well, as it is simply a less distinctive version of British RP.

So here’s the bottom line. Unless your aim is to learn a specific regional accent, the best /r/ to use for British English is the resonant /r/. A ClearSpeak Method tip for learning this is to first aim for the retroflexed /r/. For those using the Method, this technique is called Over-the-top. Once you have the feel of this, and can hear its strong ‘growl’, relax back down into the gentler resonant position. Just be careful you’re not left with too much growl or you’ll sound American instead!