Teaching techniques: ‘Borrowing’ (/r/ from Brazilian Portuguese)


This is the second in a series of posts that focuses on a useful pronunciation technique I’ve been using a lot recently with my one-to-one students.  Keep reading for a simple example (with video!)…

Some quick background

Pronunciation of individual sounds (phonemes) has traditionally been taught in one of two ways:

  1. Listen and repeat.  And again.  And again…
  2. Focus on the articulators: where is your tongue? What position is it in? Is it touching your teeth? Are your lips rounded? etc.

To my mind, the first of these approaches is only useful for about a minute.  When the students leave the classroom, the model they had earlier is no longer available so they have nothing to copy.

And while the second approach is much more useful,  it can still be somewhat convoluted, requiring diagrams of the mouth and metalanguage which some students (especially at lower levels) have difficulty understanding.

So what’s secret option number 3?

This is an alternative to the techniques above.  I call it ‘borrowing‘.

The principle is simple: some sounds may not exist as phonemes in the student’s first language (L1),  but they may in fact occur in the L1 in some specific contexts*.  As the teacher, you just need to follow 4 very simple steps:

  1. Find an example of this sound occurring in the student’s L1.  (If you don’t speak that language, try looking in Chapter 5 of ‘Teaching the Pronunciation of ELF’ by Robin Walker, which has plenty of useful examples from 9 different L1s.)
  2. Get the student to pronounce that word in their L1.
  3. Get the student to isolate the sound you’re trying to focus on.
  4. Get the student to ‘borrow’ the sound from their L1 into English.

An example from (Brazilian) Portuguese

This is easier to understand when you see it in practice.  So here’s a working example that I recently used with a Brazilian student who had trouble pronouncing /r/ at the beginning of words, like in the words ‘real’, ‘restaurant’ or ‘report’:

  1. /r/ is a bit different in Portuguese than in English and is typically pronounced like /h/ at the beginning of words.  This means words like ‘roll’ may be pronounced like ‘hole’, ‘real’ like ‘heal’ and so on.  My student was trying to think of a word in English (something like ‘value’) and muttered the Portuguese word “valor” to himself.  I realised that he was saying /r/ naturally at the end of this word, as happens in some accents of Portuguese (for example, from São Paulo state).
  2. So I got the student to say ‘valor’.  I wrote it on the board (he helped me with the Portuguese spelling!) and got him to repeat it.
  3. I erased every letter except the last, which represents the /r/ sound, and got the student to say only this sound.
  4. I wrote a few letters after this ‘r’ on the board, creating the English word ‘real’.  He pronounced it appropriately this time (with /r/ instead of /h/ at the beginning).

Unfortunately, this student went back to Brazil before I could record him doing this, but I’ve recreated it without his voice in this video.  You’ll notice I’ve graded my language quite low, as this student’s level was quite low, but he grasped and applied the concepts easily.

*In other words, they may exist as allophones.


Walker, R. (2010) Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



7 thoughts on “Teaching techniques: ‘Borrowing’ (/r/ from Brazilian Portuguese)

  1. Huh, I recently have been learning about the Brazilian “r” sound since many of the great jiu-jitsu masters from the Gracie family have names beginning with “r”. It’s not quite the same, but funny as students in Eastern Asia also have some difficulties with the “r” sound and mix it up with the “l” sound.

    • Ah yes, and that mix-up poses its own problems! I find focusing on mouth shape can help somewhat with the /r/-/l/ distinction – at least noticing it, if not producing it (yet). In reality, the position of the tongue is also very important here but it’s much harder to explain and instruct on this point.

  2. Pingback: Thank you, Fortaleza! | ELF Pronunciation

  3. This is really helpful! I am going to be doing some pronunciation teaching in Minas Gerais, and if I’m not mistaken, in that dialect, word-final ‘r’ is pronounced /h/, so I will have to find some different words from BP for Ss to borrow from (probably an intervolcalic ‘r’…).

    • Yep. You could try the word “valor” from this example video (my student was from Sao Paulo state). Or else, try borrowing the /r/ in the word “porta” (English: “door”) from the accent of BP speakers from Fortaleza.

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