I’d like to introduce my good friend Edwin Montoya Zorrilla, a native Spanish speaker who played a big role in my learning Spanish. Here, he writes about how he overcame an awkward personal challenge with the twenty-first letter of the (Spanish) alphabet.
For as long as I can remember I haven’t been able to roll my r’s. Considering I grew up and first went to school in Peru where everyone can do it, this was pretty embarrassing. My classmates thought I was purposely trying to become a ‘gringo‘ (a suspicion confirmed when I jetted off to live in Australia after my second year of primary school). Whatever your situation, rolling your r’s is essential if you’re learning Spanish, Italian or Portuguese. I finally taught myself this skill recently with some help from the internet – here’s how you can too!
The first thing you should know is that it’s quite a different skill from pronouncing the English ‘r’. The sound is not directly created by the conscious movement of your tongue or mouth, but rather the vibration of your tongue as air passes over it. The tongue should occupy a position on the alveolar ridge, the area just behind your top teeth. For most people this is where the tongue goes when you make an ‘n’ sound. If your tongue is too close to your teeth, you’ll make that Spanish lisp (‘th’) sound. Too far back, and you’ll sound like a pirate.
The trick is to keep it still. The only movement should be placing your tongue on the ridge after finishing the previous sound. So, maintain your tongue on the alveolar ridge while holding the back of the tongue stiff and the front loose. It also helps if you can create a slight overall u-shape at the front of your tongue, but if you can’t do that it’s fine. It’s not easy to keep your tongue in that shape while expelling air gradually, so we’ll begin with a few exercises.
Next, move onto saying the word “butter” very quickly. I got this from another YouTuber. You must begin with the American pronunciation, which means enunciating the ‘r’ clearly, instead of leaving it semi-silent as in the Australia “butt-ah”. You’re aiming for an explosive first syllable while shortening or tightening the space between the ‘t’ and the ‘r’. A common problem at this stage is to anticipate the ‘r’ too much and keep your tongue too far back to start with. Try not to force the ‘r’, rather, aim to let your tongue move towards it from the ‘t’ as a result of the explosiveness of the “buh”.
At first, your tongue will move forward along the ridge, but gradually it will begin to settle around the front. By then, you’ll be making the rolled ‘r’ sound in the most basic of forms. You’ll be able to feel the trill, the vibration; you might even be able to extend the sound to make a bit of a “burrrrrrrrrrr” sound (thought this isn’t necessary). After this, you can begin to move to other sounds. “Mother” is a good choice, but “otter” is a bit harder as the first syllable is less explosive. The guy in the video recommends “ladder” but I found this substantially harder.
When you’re ready you can move on to Spanish words. The first one I got was “barrio”, which is not too distant from “butter”. Next came “carrera”, which I got to by saying “cadera” very quickly, like “butter”. “Un rato” also helped with my progression, as it basically involves making a ‘u’ sound and then moving your tongue into the right position with the ‘n’. You’ll notice how different it is to pronounce the Spanish ‘r’ sound with different and adjacent sounds and will have experiment with each of them separately. It’s been taking me a while to get through these other sounds, but once I got “barrio”, things started to fall into place. Finally, you won’t need any preceding sound to make the ‘r’.
You’ll sound awkward and stunted at first, and perhaps more musical than you intend to, but trust me it’ll be worth it – and you’ll know you’ve arrived when you can pronounce the title of this post. For now, adiós, and stay tuned in to Tim Spricht!
I hope Edwin’s experiences and advice have motivated those of you who’re having troubles with the Spanish ‘r’. As someone who’s always been able to do it, I really feel for those who can’t! You can find more of Edwin’s writing at his own blog Notes From The Wreck.
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