alex vs. the french r

After four years of Spanish in high school and then three semesters in college — just one semester away from fulfilling my language requirement — I quit. I started all over again with Zulu.


Well, a lot of reasons, but let me tell you about one of them: that stupid rolled R. It was my nemesis. I could never get the hang of it, and as a result I sounded like a silly American no matter how much grammar and vocabulary I mastered (which wasn’t all that much anyway, but that’s another story).

Doesn’t Zulu have click sounds, you ask? Aren’t those worlds more difficult than a simple rolled R? Well, maybe for some people, but not for me. I can click just fine; I can’t for the life of me roll.

Fast forward almost a decade to today, two weeks in to my French training. For the most part, it’s going fine. I’m catching on to the grammar quite well. I’m remembering more and more vocabulary every day. I can say nasal vowels. I’ve gotten the hang of the fact that half of the word isn’t even pronounced. And most importantly, I know more than Andy. (Nothing like healthy competition to speed up the language learning, eh?)

There’s just one problem: the letter R.

Determined to conquer it once and for all, I first did some research. Turns out it’s quite different from my old nemesis the Spanish R, which is apparently spoken from the tip of your tongue. The French R comes from your throat.

Here’s the most useful advice I’ve found about saying it:

  1. Open your mouth.
  2. Close your throat as if you’re going to gargle or to avoid swallowing a mouthful of liquid, and say K carefully, several times.
  3. Pay attention to where in your throat the K sound is made. We’ll call this the K place.
  4. Begin slowly closing your throat, until you can almost feel the K place. Your throat should be only partially constricted.
  5. Tense the muscles around the K place.
  6. Gently push air through your partially constricted throat.
  7. Practice saying Ra-Ra-Ra (where R = steps 4-6) every day.

Truth be told, I’m not really sure how useful I can claim this advice to be, since after hours upon hours of practicing in the language lab, all I’ve achieved so far is a sore throat.

I’ll keep at it, but in the meantime I’m also dreaming up a plan B. Think it’s possible to learn a synonym for every word with the letter R? Hmm…

Au revoir! Er, never mind. I mean, à bientôt.

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6 Responses to alex vs. the french r

  1. Daniela says:

    Yeah, the French Rs are hard. I never mastered them. Or French for that matter. Although, I did try – twice. I too was puzzled by the fact that in French you usually pronounce a fraction of the letters in a word. What a waste of ink and paper! I think French is ripe for reform/simplification.

    Never had a problem with the rolling Rs but that’s because we have them in Bulgarian, so they come naturally.

    Sounds like you are making real progress in French though, which is awesome! And I like your scientific approach to the French Rs.

  2. Bridget says:

    i hear you! I loved the west african french and the R particularly as it was more like Spanish. So don’t forget, you can learn the French pronounciation and then relax when you get to Cotonou. Or maybe that was just Niger. 🙂 I still remember my girlfriend counseling me when I was going on vacation to Paris: “remember, they don’t say ‘ca va?’ to people they don’t know. And they definitely don’t say, ‘ca va le travaille? ca va la famille?’ But I still slipped up, and got mean looks!
    keep up the good work. 🙂

  3. Jeanne says:

    In kindergarten, they put peanut butter on the roof of my mouth to help me say L’s. Maybe that would work.

  4. David L. says:

    I wouldn’t worry too much. It is not like anyone is going to mistake you for a Beninian (Beninite?, Beninio?). Besides, remember in the states that everyone enjoys different accents. I imagine the same applies else where in the world.

  5. rich kolker says:

    Nobody pronounces the r in au revoir anyway. It come out something like Oh-vwa. Of course, that won’t help you get your 3/3, but it’s nice to know. I use a demain (see you tomorrow) a lot.

    Remember as each week passes: Dieu merci, cést Vendredi!

  6. RJ says:

    a friend told me saying word aggressive over and over again while trying to roll your R’s is the best way to learn how to roll your R’s

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