An R at the start of a word and a RR inside a word is ‘rolled’ in Spanish requiring you to make a sound that is also present in many other languages. It’s called the Alveolar trill and many people with English as a first language struggle to roll Rs especially if they haven’t learned to do this as a child. This sound doesn’t exist in English (except is some parts of Scotland) so native English speakers don’t tend to learn to make the sound at an early age. Native Spanish speakers learn to do this as a child but it is usually the last speech sound they develop. The exercises below will help you to develop and cultivate the sound.
- Loosen your tongue. Repeat tee-dee-va or puh-dih-nah-tah clearly (don’t mumble it or this won’t work) and quickly over and over again for a few minutes several times a day. Think about where your tongue is when you’re doing it – it should be towards the front of your mouth, hitting the back of your teeth. This exercise helps your tongue get used to the movements that are used when rolling Rs and will make it more flexible. In time, maybe a couple of weeks or more, you should start to naturally make the rolled R sound when you’re practicing this exercise.
- Visualize a ball of air in your mouth. Imagine a ball of air coming up from your throat, over your tongue and being squeezed out through a small gap between the tip of your tongue and the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth. This helps you to place your tongue in the right place in your mouth and for you to use air to make the sound.
- Gargle. If you can gargle, try to gargle and move your tongue behind your upper teeth. The vibrations from the gargling move up your tongue and the tip starts to vibrate, producing the rolled R sound.
- Make machine gun sounds. Did you (or do you still) make machine gun sounds or copy the sound of a cat purring when you were younger? If so, give it a go again now; the sound is very similar to the rolled R.
- Practice with tongue twisters. When you do start producing the rolled R sound keep practicing Spanish tongue twisters to perfect your technique. Try this one: Erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre barril, rápido corren los carros cargados de azúcar del ferrocarril.
- Bonus tip: Relax. The sound is produced when the tip of your tongue vibrates rapidly against the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth. The biggest problem English speakers tend to have when trying to roll Rs is tensing up the tongue, which makes vibrating the end of your tongue nearly impossible. Don’t place your tongue against the roof of your mouth as this tends to tense it up too. I know from experience how hard trying to roll Rs is but if you feel yourself and in particular your tongue tensing up, then take a deep breath and relax.
Some people seem to be able to roll Rs relatively easily and for others it takes hours and hours or practice. One thing is for sure, if you practice a few times a day, every day you will be able to make the sound eventually. The key to getting this sound is to try and try and keep trying. Remember you will get there eventually, it is just a matter of time, patience and practice.