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Learning a foreign language isn’t easy, especially when you don’t know what sounds to make or how to make them. For many English speakers, the Japanese “r” sound is a case in point. It’s not pronounced like an “r” nor an “l” in English. It’s something else. However, there are ways to make it easier. We’ll see how using something called the IPA alphabet.

How is the Japanese “r” sound made? The Japanese “r” sound is made by placing the tip of the tongue on the ridge behind the upper teeth, then immediately moving it away as you make a vowel sound. Practice tapping the ridge as you make the vowel to get a feel for position and sound.

It’s one thing to know how to make a sound, but something completely different to make it automatic. It requires not only muscle memory to coordinate all the parts that go into making the sound, but also programming the brain to recognize and make it. Fortunately, you don’t have to start from scratch. You can use some of the sounds you already use as starting points to create new ones. This is where the IPA alphabet provides a useful framework.

What is the IPA Alphabet?

The International Phonetic Association (IPA) alphabet provides a system to represent individual speech sounds, groups of speech sounds, and the features associated with them. Creating a one-to-one relationship between unique symbols and individual sounds is it greatest benefit.

You don’t have to look far in English to see the difference. For example, how many letters can represent the “sh” sound. Let’s see.

LettersSample Words
shship, wish
chchevron, machine
ssure, insurance
simission, session
ticaution, ambitious
cocean
cispecial, delicious

I’m sure you can find more examples, but you see the point. It’s confusing for a learner when there are many ways to represent the same sound with different letters. The IPA alphabet tries to alleviate that issue.

Now, back to the Japanese “r” sound.

The Alveolar Tap

The Japanese “r” sound is defined as an alveolar tap in IPA terminology. It is made when the tip of the tongue makes brief contact with the alveolar ridge as the air flows out the mouth while the vocal cords are vibrating. That’s a lot to absorb in one sentence. So, I’ll break that down.

The basic motion is when the tip of the tongue makes brief contact, or taps, the alveolar ridge.

The alveolar ridge is located behind the upper teeth. Using the tip of your tongue, feel around behind the upper teeth between the canines, the sharp, pointy ones. You’ll feel a shelf-like structure that is roughly shaped like a crescent. There is back edge to that shelf from which the upper surface slopes up toward the roof of the mouth. That edge is the alveolar ridge.

Air flowing out the mouth is pretty self-explanatory. That’s usually the case with most, but not all, speech sounds.

So, that leaves us with the vocal cords vibrating. I’ll save the details of how the vocal cords and what that means for another post, I will show you when they are and aren’t vibrating.

Put two fingers to the side of your throat. Now, hiss like a snake and make the “s” sound. Nothing, right? The vocal cords aren’t vibrating. Now, you’re a bee; so, start buzzing with the “z” sound. Feel something now? Your vocal cords are vibrating. Although very brief, the vocal cords will vibrate when you make the Japanese “r” sound correctly.

You May Already Have the Alveolar Tap

Good news. If you speak English, then there is a good chance that you already make this sound. Many dialects of English use this sound. However, they don’t make it in same place as in Japanese.

In English, it’s found in words spelled with double-t’s or double-d’s in the middle of the word, like “better” or “ladder.”

Say those words quickly and notice how the tongue taps the alveolar ridge. Most people take it for granted that they are saying the “t” or “d” sound based on the spelling, but it’s neither. It’s an alveolar tap.

But, what if you just happen to speak a dialect of English that doesn’t use this sound? Well, we have options for you.

The “d” Sound

Set up you mouth to make the “d” sound. Notice the position of the tongue and parts make contact with the upper surface of the mouth.

The tip of the tongue is right behind the upper teeth, the blade of the tongue is resting on the shelf between the back of the teeth and the alveolar ridge, and the sides of tongue are making contact with the upper surface of the mouth, around the gum line.

If you are set up properly, you’ve created a seal between the tongue and the upper surface of the mouth. Try pushing a bit of air through. You should be preventing it from flowing out the mouth.

The “d” sound is made when the tongue drops down to break the seal. So, how does this help us with the Japanese “r” sound?

You will know what not to do when you make the Japanese “r” sound. The tip of the tongue touches the alveolar ridge rather than it being behind the upper teeth. The sides of the tongue will not be in contact with the gum line to create a hard seal. Remember, the tip of the tongue taps the ridge.

Practice by saying the word “dough.” Notice the position and motion of the tongue. That’s the “d” sound. Now, swap it with the Japanese “r” sound. It shouldn’t sound like “dough” and it shouldn’t sound like “row,” although your brain may think you’re saying “row.” It should sound different.

Let’s try a different route to the Japanese “r” sound, an “r” sound found in English.

The Retroflex “r”

Why didn’t we start with the English “r” sound. It seems an obvious choice, but there is an issue with it. The “r” sound can be made in two different ways and not everyone makes them the same way in all contexts. Some may make one, but not the other.

The one that won’t help us here is called the voiced alveolar central approximate. You’ll know you make this one if the sides of the tongue are touching the upper surface of the mouth around the gum line. It’s like setting up for the “d” sound, but the blade of the tongue is down and not touching anything.

The “r” sound we can use here is defined as the voiced retroflex central approximate. The key is the word “retroflex.” In this version of “r,” the tongue will feel like it’s being folded back. The tongue itself will not touch the upper surface of the mouth. If you move the tongue up, the tip may touch the roof of the mouth or something soft, the soft palate.

If you make an “r” sound in this fashion, you can “unfold” the front part of the tongue so that the tip touches the alveolar ridge. Only the tip of the tongue should be touching.

Practice by tapping the alveolar ridge with the tip of your tongue as you make the “a” vowel sound as in “saw.” You may think you hear the word “raw,” but fold the tongue further back to the retroflex position I described earlier and listen for the difference.

This will take time and practice not only to get used to making the sound, but also for your brain to start recognizing the difference. Your brain is used to hearing and distinguishing sounds in your primary language; so, give it some time to readjust and learn to “hear” new sounds.

How do I Know if I’m Making the Sound Correctly?

Use what you’ve learned here to practice making the Japanese “r” sound. Here’s a list of words you can practice. (I’ve broken the words up to make them easier to say.)

Japanese Word or PronunciationIt Should Not Sound Like …
rai on“lion”
rin goNo, not the former drummer for The Beatles and not the word for an Australian dog
ru- mu“room”
re mon“lemon”
ro go“logo”

The surest and quickest way to get feedback on pronunciation is to have a proficient speaker of Japanese, like a first language speaker and an advanced learner of Japanese, listen and check. If that is not possible, search for video and audio files of spoken Japanese online to train your ear and brain. You can also listen to Japanese television programs and films.

Related Questions

Why do Japanese say “l” instead of “r”? The Japanese language has neither the “l” nor the “r” sounds. Instead, Japanese use a different sound, the alveolar tap (also known as the Japanese “r”) to pronounce English words spelled with “l” and “r.”

How do you write the Japanese “r”? Japanese does not use an alphabetic writing system; so, there is no symbol for the “r” sound by itself. Japanese uses a phonetic writing system where symbols represent syllables. The “r” sound combines with a vowel to form symbols that represent the following syllables: “ra,” “ri,” “ru,” “re,” and “ro.”

If you have any questions about the Japanese “r” sound or other questions about how language works, leave a comment in the form below.