I’ve been noticing consistent pronunciation difficulties in my private lessons lately, specifically with students having difficulty with the “ER” sound in English. The problems have been with students who speak various languages, and even at multiple levels! These problems come because of issues not only with the sound the consonant “R” makes, but also because there are various spelling combinations that produce this “ER” sound.
Just in case you don’t know which sound I am talking about, listen here.
Dan (from Better English) and I cover this sound a bit in our podcast, English Across the Pond and membership materials, noting that in American English, this sound is very pronounced and the “R” is heard very clearly. Imagine an American saying “water”, and imagine the difference in an English person saying “water” (wata). This post will obviously cover the details about the American English pronunciation.
Today’s 5 Minute English video lesson has 2 parts and will teach you some of the basics, help you learn how to make the sound, and give you plenty of examples and practice. Part 1 will cover the basics and teach you how the sound is made, while Part 2 will provide the examples. When you finish watching the video (don’t forget to take notes!) come back here and review the full blog post for more details, explanations, and examples.
Details about the “ER” Sound in English
Not to get too technical, sorry, but this combination of sounds is called a “murmur diphthong” which means that it’s a vowel + r combination sound. These combinations will change the sound of the vowel alone, and each combination produces only 1 sound. For example, the “ar” diphthong sounds like R (the letter – like car), and “or” sounds like the word OR (like born). The combinations “er”, “ir”, and “ur” all produce the same sound which is what we’re covering today, the “ER” sound. Take a quick note that the words “herd” “girl” and “burn” all have the same pronunciation in the center (er, ir, ur).
Let’s make sure you are producing the correct sound…
To make this “ER” sound correctly, you need to put your tongue and your lips to work! Both of these things, your tongue and lips, need to work together to accurately produce the sound. We’ll focus on the tongue first. To make this sound, you need to pull your tongue back and hold it high in your mouth. You should feel the sides of your tongue on your back top teeth. When you produce the sound it will move over your tongue, through your mouth and out your lips, which are out and slightly flared open (remember to watch the video to see these examples). A trick I learned in my speech pathology days is to practice saying the word “EAR”. This word starts with the long “E” vowel, like “eeee” and transitions to end with the sound “yer”.
C’mon! Let’s practice together!
Start slowly, and first say “eeeee” (the long vowel sound). Next add the linking “y” sound and the ending “er”. This linking “y” sound (the first sound in the word “yellow” or “you”) is important to accurately produce the ending “ER” sound. So you should say “eeeyer”. As you say this slowly, notice and feel the changes happening in your mouth, with your tongue and teeth. Grab and mirror and watch the changes, too! Your tongue should pull back and squeeze tighter against your back teeth in the ending “ER”, much more than “eee”. Now, if you take away the “eee-y” sound then you are left with the correct ending “ER”. Repeat….repeat…repeat!
After you perfect the sound, it’s time to move onto words…
Remember words with “er”, “ir”, and “ur” all produce this sound. It’s important to memorize the words that look and sound like this, as there isn’t really a rule for you to learn and follow. Some examples are here:
ER words, like HERD
perk, term, serve, fern, nerve, perm, her, were, jerk
IR words like GIRL
bird, circle, sir, dirt, first, birthday, skirt, shirt, thirty, fir
UR words like BURN
fur, turkey, church, hurt, surf, turf, nurse, Thursday, purple
Practice saying these words again, and again until you get comfortable with them. Really focus on producing the correct sound, focus on QUALITY and ACCURACY, not speed. This means that it won’t help you to say them really fast, trying to sound “like a native” if you are producing the wrong sound.
When you get comfortable with the sounds, then the individual words, it’s time to move on…
- Thirty girls permed their hair and dyed it purple on Thursday.
- Turkeys were in a circle in the dirt outside church.
- The nurse wasn’t a jerk, but a kind sir. He served the patients.
- A perk this term is my birthday on the first.
- The restaurant serves surf and turf on Thursdays.
There are two other letter combinations that will SOMETIMES produce the same “ER” sound as we’ve been reviewing above. These examples are in a separate category, and under “exceptions” because they will not always produce the “ER” sound. So it’s important to memorize the examples that do, and the examples that don’t. Your visual memory and practice will be the best (and only) way to master these and use them correctly.
“ear” in words like EARTH
pearl, heard, earn, learn, search, early
***Note: other words that produce different sounds: (fear & ear produce the “eeyer” sound) and (bear produces the “air” sound)***
“or” in words like WORD
worm, work, worship, inferior, janitor, doctor
***Note: other words that produce a different sound: (corn & bored produce the long “or” sound) ***
sentences to practice:
- The doctor worked in pearls.
- The early bird searches and gets the worm.
- I heard the janitor was a doctor, too.
Pronunciation practice can be difficult, and it’s much easier to learn, review, and practice with video. So make sure you visit my YouTube channel for today’s video — it’s also available above, at the top of this post — and to review other pronunciation videos in my video learning series. You can view them directly with this link by clicking here!
I also offer specific skills practice, pronunciation, via Skype with my one-on-one lessons. If you are a new student, sign up for a (free) trial today! I’d love to help you speak better English.
As always, you can ask questions and write new practice sentences in the comments, and I wish you a happy day, and …