Rolling the letter R was a challenge

Rolling the letter ‘R’ is essential in my native language, Finnish. I was not able to correctly pronounce ‘R’ before I started primary school in September 1963. Obviously, pronouncing ‘R’ correctly had not bothered me too much before that time. Also my four years older brother pronounced ‘R’ the same way.

On the first school day, I realized there was something terribly wrong with me. My new schoolmates reacted funnily when I said my name that has two r’s. The teacher repeated my name with rolling r’s. It made me acutely aware that she was right and I was wrong. I could not even pronounce my name.

At home I tried to imitate the teacher, but I just could not make the sound she and even my parents used when calling my name. I was both ashamed and furious. From then on I tried to avoid words containing “r “and generally I didn’t talk much.

That fall my teacher with the help of the school doctor arranged for me to get a weekly appointment with a speech therapist in the nearby town.

My speech impediment continued from year to year despite speech therapy. During the therapy sessions I really made an effort but between them I tried to forget the problem and did not practice at home. Instead, I escaped to the world of books and focused on words without “r’.  I dreamed that I would move to France as an adult, because everybody pronounced “r” my way in France. Maybe I was a French girl who had been born in Finland by accident …

Towards the end of the fourth grade I was accepted to a reputable secondary school in the town. What scared me most was meeting new classmates. Most of them would be town kids who would probably not have any impediments. How could I possibly avoid saying my name or other things in a new class? Maybe the new classmates would make fun of me?

The solution was that I had to learn to pronounce the rolling “r” during the summer break. Every day I practiced about 20 minutes in front of a mirror. I had to find a time when I was alone because my older brother laughed at me and said I would never learn it. He hadn’t either.

The main method I remembered from my therapy sessions was to replace “r” with “d”. I collected a long list of words where “r” was followed by a double consonant and these words became the core of my practice. The most difficult of them were names like  “Martti” and my surname “Porkka”.

In a few weeks, I was increasingly able to produce the rolling “r” instead of “d”. At the end of the summer break I managed to produce the rolling “r” when I wanted. Although my r’s sounded stronger than those of many other people, it never led to any kind of bullying.

In High School I chose French as the fourth foreign language. Wow, that was a difficult language to pronounce. The only easy sound was “r”. Despite a number of subsequent French courses during my life, French pronunciation remains challenging.

My English pronunciation has also bothered me recently because I have started giving speeches in English more often. Therefore in the beginning of the year I made an appointment at an American Speech clinic to have my English pronunciation evaluated and an accent correction plan prepared.

When I told my American friends about my pronunciation concerns, their reaction was:

– That’s a waste of money. You speak more clearly than we do!

Such reactions make me love Americans even more. They are usually tolerant and accustomed to listening to all kinds of accents, which reminds me of the true purpose of language: to facilitate communication.



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