In this British Accent Training series on the art of the ‘R’, we’re looking at how you can improve a weak ‘r’ sound. We looked at the tapped ‘r’ in our last article, so now it’s time to look at a very common difficulty: a weak or lisping ‘R’.
This is one of the most common things students bring to me – a ‘R’ that just doesn’t sound right. UK readers will know Jonathan Ross, affectionately called ‘Wossy’ because of his weak ‘R’. The ‘r’ becomes a ‘w’, weplacing evewy single ‘w’ with a ‘w’. Which can lead to a lot of confusion.
This ‘lisp’ is more common in certain accents than in others. In fact, a great deal of London accents have a built-in lisp, as well as Essex accents to the North East of London. For those accents, this is less a defect and more a commonly agreed-on sound of the ‘R’. It’s just how they say it. But for this accent, we need a bit more strength in the ‘R’.
The difference between a weak and a strong ‘R’ is what the tongue and the lips are doing. ‘W’ replacements for ‘r’ sounds generally mean that the lips are doing too much, and the tongue needs to take over.
Get a mirror, and look at your mouth while you say “wuh-wuh-wuh”. You’ll notice that the lips form a little circle at the front of the mouth, and then retreat outwards again. They go in, then go out. Now make a ‘vuh-vuh-vuh’. The bottom lip will touch the top teeth, creating a bit of friction between them.
In the ‘r’ sound, the lips don’t do either of these things. They pucker forwards in a ‘shh’ position, with the bottom lip especially pointing outwards and downwards. There is no small circle in front of the mouth, it’s a puckered forward, ‘shhh’ shape.
And from this position, we return to the revving motorbike. You should feel the tongue pull backwards as you make the ‘rr’, curling upwards and backwards slightly. It should feel muscular, firm and strong. Rev a little harder, making sure that your lips stay in the ‘shh’ position. If it still feels weak, rev harder and be more disciplined with the lips – that’s the way to strengthen the ‘r’.