The French R is usually the sound that can cause most difficulties for French learners. According to my students it is the typical sound that we might expect in French. It is also the pronunciation of the R sound in French that scares people when it comes to learn how to make it. They completly lose their confidence (like French people lose their confidence when they need to pronounce the TH sound or the R in english!).
Not that important
No worries. It is actually not that important to pronounce well the French R. When we listen to any R, the word is still understandable. Because what makes the difference in French is rhythm and vowels, not much consonants. So even if you think that your pronunciation of the R sucks, keep calm. However the good pronunciation of nasal vowels and a special attention to the rhythm of syllables, will help you to make yourself understood in French. Remember that.
That being said, you should know that French R has different sounds according to its place in the word. It is logical, it is related to the phonetic system and our mouth.
French native usually don’t even realize it, as we don’t learn it at school, but there can be 5 different ways to pronounce the R (there is no rolled R in French nowadays).
[R] is articulated further back in the throat (with the back of the tongue)
You should always focus on a practical level. It means that in daily, rapid French speech the R is often an approximant between two vowels. This means that the back of the tongue comes close to the uvular, but not quite close enough to cause significant friction, and the R sound therefore takes on a “vowel-like” quality.
Listen to the pronunciation of the word arrêt for example
It is usually voiced before a vowe. The vocal cords vibrate during the pronunciation of the R), but can often be devoiced at the end of a phrase or before or after a voiceless consonant. So for example, in the pronunciation of the words artiste or train, the vocal cords often do not vibrate through the r sound (or only through a small proportion of it) because of the influence of the voiceless t sound.
Remember that it is good to practice in context. Just trying to pronounce a perfect R is not the point because in daily speech it will always be different. You can then try to pronounce the R in different words and then try to recognize the difference in the French R’s like in this sentence:
Regardez courir mon frère.
This sentence contains 4 different cases of the R sound.
- Before a consonant
- Between vowels
- After a consonant
You will notice the difference when you pronounce these R’s and then you can adapt the strength.
The French R is a new sound for many foreigners, don’t be shy of trying and making mistakes, it is always the key to learn faster!