Spanish Rolling R: A Pronunciation Guide
You can perfect your grammar, learn the entire Spanish dictionary, and talk at 100 mph, but the one stumbling block keeping you from sounding really Spanish is the “r” sound. Especially for us native English speakers, this sound is so alien that it seems just impossible. Fear not! I too struggled, and after months of sheer stubbornness, finally managed to get a decent Spanish “rolling r”. Here are a few pointers I hope will help you along your way to Spanish perfection!
Phonetics 101: English “r” vs Spanish “r”
Say “red river” to yourself, a few times. As you do it, think about the shape your lips make as you make the “r” sound. In English, we form the “r” sound by shaping it with the inside of the bottom lip against the top teeth. Try doing it without touching your teeth to your lips, and you’ll see that you do too! This gives it quite a distinctive sound, and is something that Spanish speakers struggle with too.
Now, one telling quality about the Spanish “r” is its speed, which is like a machine gun vibration. If you try and do that by forming an English “r”, you won’t be able to as you can’t move your lips that fast. A Spanish “r” sound is formed with the tongue, which vibrates against the back of your top teeth, or just near them.
Making the right shape with your mouth
You need to get in the habit of forming this shape with your mouth. The closest thing we have in English is the “t” or “d” consonant sound – imagine forming that consonant, and that gives you more or less the right position.
Rolling your “rrrrrrr”
If you really can’t make the sound, hold your mouth in the “d” or “t” shape, and breathe out through your mouth. Relax your tongue, and let it vibrate against the back of your front teeth (or just behind them). It might help to start the sound with a “d” or “t” sound.
Fitting the Spanish “r” into Spanish words
This is the hard part, and requires a bit of practice. It’s a good idea to work out two variations of the Spanish rolled “r” – a long one and a short one. The long one is used either when the word starts with “r”, or in the middle when the spelling is “rr”, like “barro”. The short “r” is when you just vibrate the tongue once, producing a much more clipped “r” sound (almost like the English “l” consonant sound – in fact Spanish children often confuse the two sounds). This is used in the middle of a word, when it’s spelt with just one “r”, like “gracias”. Here are a few ones to practise:
Long Spanish R
Short Spanish R
A Spanish tongue-twister to practise
Finally, have a go at this well known “trabalenguas” (tongue-twister):