Roughly 1-2% of people will enter adulthood with speech sound errors that remain from childhood (Flipsen, 2015), and a large number of those errors are mispronunciations of R.
In childhood, there is up to a 75% chance that this pronunciation difference will resolve itself with time. However, it is very unlikely that anyone who has trouble with R after high school will learn how to produce the sound without help.
What makes R so difficult?
One of the things that makes the R sound so difficult is that there are several different sounds that make up what we think of as the “R” sound in English (when it is spoken with a North American accent). We have the consonant R, often transcribed by phoneticists or speech-language pathologists as /r/ (as in “red”). We also have rhotic vowels, such as /ɝ/ (as in “her”). Learning to say the R in “red” may not help a person feel confident when they say “her,” and the reverse is also true.
Another factor that makes R more difficult to learn is that there is no good landmark to use to help while learning how to pronounce it. It is fairly easy to learn to pronounce T, as you have to touch the roof of your mouth, behind your teeth, with the tip of your tongue. Similarly, to pronounce P, you put both lips together. If you say “pat,” you can feel your lips (for P) and tongue (for T) touching the correct place as you say each sound. If you say “rat,” your tongue will touch the roof of your mouth for the T. You may notice that your lips round as you say R, but accurately sensing what happens to your tongue as you pronounce that sound will be much more difficult.
To make matters even more complicated, there is more than one “correct” way to pronounce the R. If you compare your pronunciation of P with those of your friends and family, they will likely all be the same. However, if you could use an MRI machine to see the shape of your tongue as you pronounced R, you may notice that your pronunciation and those of your family and friends may all be slightly different. There are two general categories of ways to pronounce R: bunched (in which the body of the tongue is higher than the tip of the tongue) and retroflex (the tip of the tongue is held high in the mouth). You may be better suited to one, or both in different situations – this means that there are more different options to try than there would be for another sound like P, and that the first version you try may not be the one that works best for you. For those who are interested in learning more, or seeing images of the different tongue shapes used to pronounce R, look into the Delattre and Freeman (1968) R taxonomy, or a more recent taxonomy described by Tiede and colleagues in 2004. Citations are listed below for both studies.
How do I get the R sound that I want?
It is not always necessary to “fix” a sound that is pronounced differently, but those would like to change the way they pronounce R can seek services from a speech-language pathologist. Because of the complicating factors outlined above, R can be a difficult sound to learn.
Changing your R
If you want to change the way you pronounce your R, it will require plenty of work to meet your goal. Your participation in the process will be critical and attending weekly speech therapy appointments alone will not be sufficient to create meaningful change. Expect to spend a portion of every day either trying to bring your R closer to your target pronunciation, or practicing your new R in different contexts to reinforce your new pronunciation habits. One woman who I spoke to recently, whose R was treated in adolescence, she told me that in the end, she “figured out” her R while sitting on a bus! Practicing her strategies for R in speech therapy appointments had felt silly week after week. It wasn’t until she had practiced with those techniques on her own time that she finally found herself able to position her tongue to make the sound well.
Traditional Speech Therapy Techniques
Traditional pronunciation training from a speech-language pathologist can look very different depending on the client and what works well for them. But your speech-language pathologist will likely use some, or all, of these strategies to help you produce your R well:
images and diagrams to help explain what you need to do with your tongue to make the sound
exercises to help you become more aware of where the back of your tongue sits in your mouth and how to move it voluntarily
using words and sounds that set you up for the pronunciation you want (for example, using the “ah” vowel to help the muscles of your mouth get close to the position they sit in for a retroflex R)
giving exactly the level of feedback you need for your level of mastery for the sound
assigning home practice tailored to your strengths and weaknesses
Technology is amazing, and research has shown that the use of MRI and ultrasound in particular can be very effective for clients learning R! Using these machines, clients can watch their tongue in real time and adjust its position to match one of the R shapes (Bernhardt et al., 2005). Unfortunately, this equipment is prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of speech-language pathology clinics.
Luckily, other kinds of feedback can be used that are still objective measurements of how effectively a client is producing Rs (Byun & Hitchcock, 2012). For example, a speech-language pathologist can show you how to use a spectrogram app on your phone to help you judge whether your R is getting closer to (or farther from) your target as you practice at home. For people who are unsure whether they are practicing their strategies correctly, getting a helping hand from their phone or computer will keep them on the right track – which will help them meet their goals faster.
Bernhardt, B., Gick, B., Bacsfalvi, P., & Adler-Bock, M. (2005). Ultrasound in speech therapy with adolescents and adults. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics, 19(6-7), 605-17.
Delattre, P., & Freeman, D. C. (1968). A dialect study of American r’s by x-ray motion picture. Linguistics, 6, 29–68.
Flipsen, P. (2015). Emergence and prevalence of persistent and residual speech errors. Seminars in Speech and Language, 36(4), 217-23
Byun, T. M., & Hitchcock, E.R. (2012). Investigating the use of traditional and spectral biofeedback approaches to intervention for /r/ misarticulation. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 21(3), 207-21.
Tiede, M., Boyce, S. E., Holland, C., & Chou, A. (2004). A new taxonomy of American English ∕r∕ using MRI and ultrasound. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 115, 2633–2634.
Speech sound errors tend not to be resolved in adulthood without direct treatment. To speak with one of the speech-language pathologists at Well Said: Toronto Speech Therapy about your pronunciation of /r/ (or any other sounds), schedule an initial consultation by clicking the link below or calling (647) 795-5277.