Why would a cat chase a hat?

Here’s one more post with ideas and suggestions for helping our learners become aware of pronunciation areas which are essential for their intelligibility, and overcome their difficulties.

This time let’s focus on a very common Brazilian pronunciation problem which fortunately teachers and more recent course books (like Richmond’s new English ID series) have been giving more attention to lately than they used to do a few years ago. That’s the mispronunciation of initial R’s as H’s because of the way the letter R is pronounced in that position in most varieties of Brazilian Portuguese.

According to Jenkins’s common core of English phonology (Jenkins, 1996: 17-18), the substitution of a consonant phoneme for another (conflation) is an important source of miscommunication caused by unintelligibility. In the case of the substitution of /h/ for /r/ in initial position we get words like Rome coming out as home, red as head, rich as hitch, etc.

Among the anecdotal data I gathered about this problem (please see my previous post), there’s an interesting story told by a British teacher who had been in Brazil for just a few months and was asked to substitute for a colleague in a class full of little kids. One of the tasks they had to do was to find ten mice in a picture and say where they were. The teacher couldn’t speak any Portuguese, and had no idea of the usual Brazilian pronunciation problems, so she was very surprised and puzzled when the students started telling her there was a hat under the chair, and another hat in the teapot, yet another hat on the couch, and so forth. She then interrupted them and said there were no hats in the picture! It’s easy to imagine it was the students’ turn to be really puzzled then…

What can we do to help our learners overcome this problem if they have it? Here are some ideas.

• Whenever you teach new words beginning with the letter R, make sure you remind students that they cannot pronounce them as in Portuguese. Make them aware of the importance of not pronouncing an R as an H by showing them minimal pairs, such as rabbit/habit, or red/head.

• Create posters for the classroom showing minimal pairs with pictures – for example, a rat wearing a red hat on his head! (Click on the link below for Mark Hancock’s great drawing of this.)

• To raise learners’ awareness and give them some practice, you can use the game available on this page, specially created by Mark Hancock and me for this purpose, based on his original design.

• Constantly correct this mistake whenever it occurs. Make it into a ‘big deal’ in your classes.

Whatever you do, don’t let students get away with H’s in place of R’s!


Jenkins, J. 1996 ‘Changing Pronunciation Priorities for Successful Communication in International Contexts.’ Speak Out!, IATEFL SIG Newsletter 17, 15-23.

Ricardo Sili

I’ve been in ELT for longer than I can remember – teaching, training teachers, designing and managing courses, and writing for Learning Factory (Interlink / New Interlink series), then Richmond (English ID Starter) and a few others. I’m fascinated by pronunciation and grammar teaching. And I have an MA in ELT, and an RSA Diploma. rsili@msn.com

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