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This question concerns difficulty pronouncing the sounds R and L between the ages of 4 and 6 years old.

Assuming that there's no serious problem (that is, all other sounds are correctly pronounced and speech is mostly intelligible) and that the child will learn to pronounce those letters correctly on their own, how fast is the process of overcoming it?

I don't mean the whole practice and exercises that I've seen advised everywhere, though. I mean, once the child starts pronouncing the difficult letters, is the evolution overnight or does it take several weeks, with some words correctly pronounced and others not so much. Are there moments of backtracking, when they go back to not pronouncing words correctly, or is it more like 'learn the trick and rarely make the mistake again'?

By the way, I'm not from the US and where I live it's considered normal for children up to 6 years old (or older, if their teeth have gaps) to have difficulty pronouncing some letters. Very rarely have I seen or heard of children asked to repeat the word correctly or coached about how to pronounce correctly those difficult sounds, only after they start school. Only if a lot of sounds are not correctly pronounced, making speech unintelligible, will one go to a doctor about it.

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This is highly variable by child. I have four children, three of whom are old enough to have gone through this.

  • One of my twins figured this out on their own by the age of 2 or 3, so smoothly that I don't really remember the transition.

  • My other twin had an "ah-ha" moment at the age of 5 regarding the pronunciation of R, and the transition was like flipping a switch. We were driving home from school and the distinction between two classmates names, Wiley and Riley, came up. This twin asked "what's the difference?" (at which Twin 1 scoffed) and I very exaggeratedly over-enunciated. Twin 2 spent the remainder of the drive (about ten minutes) saying "Rrrrye-lee" over and over, and by the end of the day had Rs mastered.

  • My third child consciously worked on Ls and Rs with a school speech therapist from ages 7 to 10 ("graduated" at the end of last school year, and now knows far more about the mechanics of L and R blends than I do). Progress was fairly steady, but tended to come in stages: First my child would learn to produce the sound in isolation and practice just saying the sound; next they would work on being able to produce the sound in words; and finally on using it in speech. This last one was sometimes a little jaggy—Kid 3 could say it when paying attention, but might slip when tired or speaking quickly or just not thinking about it.

Looking back at our speech therapy records, age 7 was the earliest that L trouble was considered a problem meriting state-funded therapy, and coverage for R trouble didn't start until age 8. My guess is that most children are figuring out these sounds, at varying speeds and with different processes, in the age range that you've asked about.


This post is from an American English point of view; other languages which handle Ls and Rs differently may have different timetables, though I imagine the general rule of "it depends on the kid" probably still applies.

As an aside, I have been trying to "roll" my Rs for most of my adult life...I've watched YouTube videos, read explanations from speech coaches, etc. but so far to no avail. I can "flip" my Rs as in Japanese words, and I've managed to approximate a trill out of context, but not attached to an actual word. I live in hope that someday I (or my tongue) will finally figure it out.

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There is no one-size-fits-all answer for "how fast will a child learn to do x." It depends on the child and those around him.

My ex-girlfriend's kid couldn't pronounce the letter S. He wouldn't even try. He would just leave that letter out of every word, pronouncing all the other letters fine. His mother never attempted to correct him because she thought it was cute. It wasn't until he started kindergarten that he started to pronounce the S's. I can only assume this was because either his teacher taught him or because other kids made fun of him until he decided to work on it himself.

Assuming [...] the child will learn to pronounce those letters correctly on their own...

He probably already realizes that certain words have an R-sound, question is, is he trying to pronounce it correctly? If he's struggling to say those sounds then he's trying, if he's comfortable using a W-sound instead then you may need to intervene. Lots of people live their entire lives with a lisp.

If you work with him, he will probably start improving as his teeth mature. If his teeth fully mature and he's still pronouncing words incorrectly it will be very difficult for him to learn later on.

  • The child isn't mine but a friend's. No one considers it particularly funny, just a normal part of growing up. She is 4 and always produces a sound for the r/l (not w, and not always the same exact sound), but she is eager to chat and make herself understood so she's expected to work it out in the next year or so. I was really just curious because I teach English to adults and as the students finally learn 'the trick' to producing a correct 'th', they quickly start using it consistently, sometimes from one class to the next. I wondered if it's the same for children learning r/l. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jan 10 '18 at 10:29
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Generally once they get it right, and the proverbial lightbulb comes on, most kids will start pronouncing it correctly with quickly increasing frequency. This is especially true if they get lots of encouragement from their parents, teachers, and other caregivers. Like another person pointed out, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, but by and large most kids are naturally motivated to get it right. When that's the case, it's most often just a matter of their learning what to do with their lips and/or tongue, and what it feels like to say it right. Once they have that, then with practice and encouragement, they will develop the new habits around how they speak, and that will increasingly replace the old habits.

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How do you pronounce an 'R'. Describe it. Pretty difficult. There are lots of muscles involved and you only see the lips. The lips look pretty much the same when pronouncing an L or an R.

Your child will create an R accidentally an then it will know how to pronounce it. You can help by playing language games - e.g. nursery rhymes, singing or acting.

If it is just R and L I wouldn't be too alarmed in that age. However a hearing test is fun for kids and helps to rule out a common problem in speech development.

In don't whether in your country the R is spoken rolling (Rollercoaster, Romeo) or voiceless more like an open a (like in bar, far). Water is mostly spoken as 'wata'

I'm from Germany and I don't roll the 'r' in Bavarian dialects the 'r' is rolled. I had to do Bavarian accent and I practiced the 'r' with gargling.

How about a gargling competition in the Morning ;-)

  • Our 'r' is like the Scottish one. She palatises the L and the r is either left out or turned to a mix between y and w (which varies a lot), depending on the nearby sounds. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jan 11 '18 at 11:26
  • Well, my knowledge to scottish is very limited. I tried to follow the movie "Angel's share" once in scottish, and failed ;-) However singing and nursery rhymes will help in speaking. And if you read a lot to her, she will establish a control of the right sound of words and will correct herself. However, if you are concerned that she is very far behind other, then you should ask for professional help. – Joachim Weiß Jan 12 '18 at 11:44
  • Thanks. I'm not worried as it's generally accepted 5 year olds usually have trouble with those sounds. I was mostly curious about how fast the transition is, if it's a 'click' and perfect Rs all the time, or if it's a longer 'sometimes right, sometimes wrong' evolution. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jan 12 '18 at 12:25

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