On the German R Pronunciation

I’ve been living in Germany now for almost one year and a half and I’m still struggling with learning the language. I moved here when the first lockdown was in place, back in April 2020, and it was really hard to make friends or even talk to people. I was limited to work colleagues through video conferences. But the official language in the office is English and most of the people in my team are not even German, which made it really complicated to actually get me started into the language. I was barely listening to enough German to get familiarized with the sounds.

After some time of Duolingo, two A1 classes a week and some actual interaction with German people, I started getting a bit of it. I could do basic interactions, order food and talk numbers, but everybody would comment on my pronunciation of the letter R. They said it sounded like CH, but in my mind those sounds were the same. And when someone tried to explain to me the difference, they would exaggerate it in order to make the difference noticeable, but all I could hear in this situation was the rolling sound made with the back of the tonge, which was not what we were looking for.

My first reference for that R sound is from Portuguese, my native language. Of course that letter has several different sounds only considering the Brazilian version of Portuguese, but I was associating both R and CH with the similar one we have, like on the word rato (mouse), which is very similar to the famous french R.

The great thing comes when one day I was a bit high from weed and suddenly I could hear the difference, and when I spoke it, I was instantly appraised for my correct pronunciation from my (German) girlfriend. It was then so obvious. The difference from German CH (which is exactly the Portuguese R) and the German R is that the latter is, wait for it, wet. That’s how I imagined in my mind, just like the difference between English P and B or T and D, they’re basically the same sound, but while the former is dry, the latter is wet.

It’s incredible how having that concept in my mind helped me even notice the difference when hearing that sound. I had such an Eureka moment.

Turns out the wetness concept is actually called phonation, and we can say that the German CH is a voiceless sound, represented as an x or X in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) while the R is a voiced one, represented by ʁ. There’s actually more similar sounds that would categorize as the same according to my reference to R. And I realized that the same letter R in Portuguese actually produces several types of those sounds on different words, examples:

Name Not. Language Word Phonetic Meaning
Voiceless velar fricative x German Buch [buːx] book
Portuguese arrasto [ɐ̞ˈxastu] I drag
Voiceless uvular fricative X German Dach [daχ] roof
Portuguese marrom [mäˈχõː] brown
Voiced uvular fricative ʁ German Rot [ʁo:t] red
Portuguese arroz [ɐˈʁos] rice
French rester [ʁɛste] to stay
Voiceless glottal fricative h German Hass [has] hatred
Portuguese marreta [maˈhetɐ] sledgehammer
English high [haɪ̯] -

It’s really interesting how all the four types of sounds are present in Brazilian Portuguese with the same letters, RR in this case, but it’s supposed to have the same sound as just a single R at the start of a word. I never noticed the difference in sound between them before knowing there was one. And I’m not even going deeper and talk about the different accents within Brazil, or the different German dialects, that would make this study even more complex.

My conclusion is that learning more about the types of sounds can help you understand and produce them with more fidelity.