This is the letter – or more correctly – the sound that is subject to most concern for my students. It shouldn’t be. There are letters, or sounds, that should be given much more attention, and if mispronounced can cause confusion or misunderstanding. To be able to distinguish and articulate all nine vowels (and their variations), for example, is crucial to make yourself understood in Swedish. Pronunciation concerned, I tend to focus on understandability, that is, if a mistake causes misunderstanding or confusion. This is rarely the case with R. I will explain why.
(I will try not to use too much technical terms here, and if you are in need of a more scientific article in linguistics, I would advise you to look elsewhere.)
So, the sound of R.
Depending on where you go in the country, this sound will be pronounced differently. In the south, it is produced far back in the throat, gutturally, comparable to Danish, German, French. On the west coast, and along the border to the southern parts of Norway, you find a rolled R. It is produced in the front of the mouth, with the tip of the tongue vibrating against the palate. During my years as a teacher, I have learnt that this sound is what many foreigners tend to assume is the standard of all of Sweden. This assumption, however, is somewhat misleading. Instead, if you would try to place this sound geographically, it belongs not so much to the Nordic countries but rather to the North Sea region – the western parts of Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Faroe Islands, and Scotland.
If you have not learnt the technique of rolling your R’s from early age, it can be quite difficult to achieve, even if you seek professional help. (I know that sounds a bit extreme, but some people actually do it!). The assumption that this is the only correct pronunciation can to parts be explained by the fact that this is what the majority of Swedes believe is the correct way. This is also the way your average Swede – or Swedish teacher – will teach you. This is despite the fact that in everyday speech, many Swedes employ an alternative – lazier – sound than the rolled R.
This means, that if we travel to the eastern, and northern parts of Sweden, we will find an R that is, for English speakers, much easier to pronounce. Just like the distinctively rolled R, it is also formed with the tip of the tongue against the palate, but the vibration has been omitted. This is not – in technique – very different from the English R, which is also produced with the tip of the tongue against the palate. The main difference is that the Swedish R is located much closer to the lips, and the English R further back in the mouth. (This is a general rule for Swedish pronunciation. If you want to sound like a real Swede, try to shape the words as close as possible to the opening of the mouth. English, in general, is spoken very far back in the mouth.)
I therefore recommend my students to use this method. They do not need to spend a lot of time learning how to roll their R’s, and the result is that they will use the same pronunciation as a large part of the Swedish population. Of course, if you live in the south-west, or the south, and wish to sound like a local, this does not apply.
Asian students often have difficulties making a difference between R and L. This ‘mistake’, if you want to call it so, is because in their language, the difference simply does not exist. If you do not make a distinction between two sounds in your own language, it is very difficult to perceive the difference when listening to another language and produce it accordingly. Similarly, Swedish makes no difference between S and Z, and it is very common to here Swedes pronouncing eyes and ice the same, when speaking English. Back to L and R. The technique of the two sounds is very similar, with the difference being in how much the tongue actually touches the palate. For L, the tongue should be firmly resting against the palate, whereas for R, there should be a little gap between the two, leaving more space for air to pass through. Again, the Swedish L is produced much closer to the lips, than the English equivalent.
Another interesting detail concerning the pronunciation of R, is the combination of R with one of the letters D, N, S or T. Here, the two sounds, (R and D for example) are merged into one. (Please note that this is not applicable if you pronounce your R gutturally, in the back of the throat.) To master this part is not in any way necessary to make yourself understood, but it is relatively easy, and can be a way of impressing your Swedish friends. Swedes believe this is a concept perfectly impossible for foreigners to grasp, and if you see any amateur or professional attempt to impersonate a foreigner (of any origin) I can guarantee that the R is pronounced separately from the following consonant.
Take the word ett barn for example. The R and the N are not pronounced as two distinct sounds, but as one that is neither an R nor an N but something in between. In order to pronounce this, you need to be aware of both technique and location of both different sounds. This takes a bit of trying, and you might feel more comfortable being on your own for your first attempts. Begin by pronouncing the two sounds separately (you need to say it out loud), and pay attention to how you do it, and where you do it. If you follow my advice above, you will produce the R by barely touching the palate with your tongue, not too far back. You will also discover that pressing the tongue to the front teeth makes N. If you then move the N, to the location of R, whilst keeping the same technique, you will have the RN sound. Examples include en varning, Zorn, en örn.
The same rule applies the other three combinations: move the technique of D to the location of R, and you will have the correct sound for ord, hård, lördag. Move the technique of T to the location of R, and you will have the sound for ett kort, Martin, arton. Use the technique of S at the location of R, and you can correctly pronounce ursäkta, Andersson, mars. This applies also when not spelled with an S, but pronounced so, as in the case of C. Listen to a Sweden talking about the Catalan capital and you will hear something close to a thick Bashe-loona.