That's the reaction most people have to
trying to learn the infamous
sound in French. Actually, there are several [R]
sounds that you can use, some being more common than
others. The most important thing is not to produce
for several reasons. First of all, the English
[r] is a resonant and has a
vowel quality. Second, it has the effect
of "rhotoizing" the vowel that precedes it. That's
just a linguistic term that means that the [r]
changes the quality of the vowel. So if you produce
an English [r] while speaking
French, you generally mispronounce 2 sounds: the [r]
and any preceding vowel.
The three varieties of French [R]
are the following: the
uvular fricative (made with the air forced between the
back of your tongue and the uvula (that thing that hangs
in the back of your throat) made with a lot of noise)
is the standard French sound and the one you should
try to do. The
uvular trill (made with the tongue moving back and forth
very rapidly against the uvula). This sound is
the one you make when you gargle (think
Edith Piaf). The final variety is the
(made with the tongue hitting the front teeth very rapidly).
This is the same sound as found in Spanish and Italian.
It is found in areas of France that border on those
two countries, as well as in certain parts of Canada
and in North Africa. This variety is marked as
somewhat provincial and old (in France. It's perfectly
acceptable in Canada and in North Africa). Before
the French Revolution, that was the [r]
of the aristocracy; during the Revolution, pronouncing
that [r] could result in a
trip to the guillotine. Thankfully, the consequences
of that pronunciation are much less dire nowadays.
And, if you can't do the uvular fricative and can do
the dental trill, it's still better than the English
Now, how to pronounce the fricative: the
best way is to start at the back of the throat.
Pronounce the velar stop [g].
While making the sound, move the back of your tongue
just a bit down, so that there's room between your tongue
and the uvula. That's the [R]
Here are some words to practice. We're beginning
with words that have the [R] following either [g] or
[k] at the beginning of a syllable so you have a 'starting
point' for the [R]. Then we'll move to words where
the [R] follows another consonant. Next, words
where the [R] begins a syllable, that means, either
at the beginning of a word or between 2 vowels.
The hardest position for pronouncing the [R] is before
a consonant or at the end of a word. In that position,
really exaggerate the sound, because you will be tempted
to just delete it altogether. If the [R] precedes
a consonant and there's a vowel other than e
following that consonant, then pronounce the [R] as
the last sound of the syllable. For example:
parte is a one-syllable word. But partie
is two syllables: par and tie.