From the archives...
The following question was originally posted on the (now discontinued) LOE Forum.
I am having trouble hearing a distinction between the sound for "r" and "er" & "ir". Is there a slight difference? If so, tell me how I can hear it.
Yes, they are similar, but yes, there is a difference. It is hard to tell them apart and say them differently when they are in isolation. However, it is not usually difficult to tell them apart in words.
First off, it's important to note that the phonograms ER and IR represent the same sound (which we represent as /er/ in our materials). The words her and sir rhyme.
Now, let's talk about the difference between /er/ and /r/.
The sound /er/ is an R-controlled vowel sound. What makes it different from /r/ is that it has a vowel in it, though a vowel that is somewhat obscured and controlled by the /r/ sound after it. Because it contains a vowel, it forms a syllable. So, for example, the word heater has two syllables. The second syllable is /er/. The word word birthday has two syllables, and the vowel in the first syllable is /er/.
The sound /r/ is technically a consonant, with no vowel sound. It does not form a syllable. However, it is hard to pronounce /r/ in isolation without adding a vowel sound to it. If you try to say /rrrr/ with no vowel, you are probably actually saying /errrr/ (adding a vowel before) or /rrruh/ (adding a vowel after). Because the sound /r/ has some qualities of a vowel and tends do dominate vowels around it in a word, it's difficult to separate from any vowels before it. (We refer to it as "Bossy R" because of the way it controls vowels and alters their shape.)
So it is not hard to hear that /r/ is the first sound in "run," or that the second sound in "train" is /r/. If we said /er/ instead of /r/ hear, we'd say these words with two syllables: "errun," "terrain." And it's not hard (for adult native English speakers, at least) to say /r/ correctly in these words. However, it IS hard to say that sound in isolation when you segment the words into /r - u - n/ and /t-r-ā-n/.
I would not worry too much about being able to hear or say them perfectly in isolation. Figuring out which one to use when writing actual words is more important, and I think you will also find it easier. Just pay attention to whether the sound is forming a syllable in the word or not - in other words, whether it is functioning as a consonant or as a vowel.
However, to help you hear it, you might think about long vowel words that end in R and then try to think about the two sounds separately. For example, in "share," you have the long vowel /ā/ plus /r/. It is not /shā-er/, two syllables, but /shār/, one syllable. In "floor," we have the long ō followed by /r/, one syllable, not /flō-er/ with two.