EXPLAINED: How to master the French rolling R

EXPLAINED: How to master the French rolling R
If you're heading to Rouen, be prepared to roll that R. Photo: AFP
It's one of the defining sounds of the French language, but can be a tricky one for foreigners. French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis explains how to master the French R.

One of the things that gives the French language its elegant sound is the gently rolling R, but this is often a source of much difficulty and certain amount of sore throats among foreigners when they try to master it.

We asked French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis, founder of French Today, for her tips.

How important is it to roll your Rs? Can’t we just skip it if it’s too hard?

Unfortunately it is important for the way that words are pronounced, but you don’t need to overdo it. It’s really quite a gentle vibration rather than a roll.

Where do foreigners usually go wrong?

People often overthink it, or try to overdo the vibration – if you’re gargling or spitting then it’s too much, it should be a gentle. People often listen to Edith Piaf and think the Rs need to be pronounced in that really guttural way, but that’s an effect for a song in her own French accent, it’s not how most people talk in everyday life today.

So how should we do it?

Firstly don’t be afraid. People often freak out and pause too much before trying the R, it helps to think of it as part of the word.

In French the vowels are much stronger than the consonant – in English it’s the other way round – so think of the sounds of the vowel in the word that you’re saying and let the R ride along with them.

But I have a three-step technique for making sure you have the right sound.

Let’s hear it then!

1. Stick the whole of your tongue onto the roof of your mouth

2. Lower only the tip of your tongue and press it hard against the back of your lower front teeth

3. Make a hard ‘g’ sound as if you were saying ‘get’ –  study the vibration that happens then in your throat: the sound should come out as a soft rrrrrrr sound – and that’s the French R.

READ ALSO Three steps to the perfect French R pronunciation – with audio recordings

Any other tips?

Think of a cat purring. If you’re getting a sore throat when you’re doing it then you’re probably overdoing the vibration, but as with any new technique it’s important to protect your voice and take it gently at first.

Camille Chevalier-Karfis is a French language expert, and founder of FrenchToday.com. If you have a question for Camille, email us at [email protected] and we’ll ask her advice.

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