- “I can’t trill my R’s”.
- “I’ve tried everything but rolling my R’s it’s impossible”.
- “I think there’s something wrong with my mouth”….
Does it ring a bell?
Trilling your R’s is impossible… because you don’t know how to do it.
Once you learn the basics (technique, where and how to place your tongue, what to do with the air…) everything becomes easier.
2 cases where you won’t be able to roll your Rs
People often think that their inability to trill is genetic. But it’s not.
Rolling your R’s is a skill you can master unless:
- You were born with a cleft lip or palate. Only 1 out of 600 babies is born with this problem.
- Your tongue frenum is too short. You will know because you’ll feel related to some of the following statements:
- Your tongue gets tired when talking for a long time.
- You can’t lick your upper gum, lip or reach your palate.
- You prefer ice cream cups to ice cream cones. Because you prefer using a spoon rather than licking.
- You aren’t able to swallow capsules or tablets.
- Some kisses are difficult.
If there’s nothing wrong with your mouth, then you should be able to roll your R. You only need 3 things:
- Understand how the sound is produced in your mouth.
- Have a method that works.
- Practice (of course!)
Everyone can do it.
If you aren’t able to roll your R’s yet, you’re doing something wrong.
3 reasons why is it difficult to trill the R
Nobody is born knowing how to roll the R. In fact, it’s one of the sounds Spanish kids learn the latest and some of them need help before they get to pronounce it right.
These are the 3 reasons why it’s difficult to trill your R:
- Because the position of your tongue and the strength of the airflow you need are quite strict.
- Because you don’t see what happens in the mouth. It’s like when you learn to whistle. You don’t see what’s going on in there so it’s difficult to make the same happen in your own mouth.
- Because you have very little awareness of how your mouth moves. We do have it when we learn to talk -as babies-, but once we know how to do it, our mouth moves automatically. Likewise, walking. You don’t pay attention to the movement of your legs and feet. It just happens. You can talk and walk at the same time without thinking about how you’re doing it.
However, rolling your R’s is a skill, and like any other skill, you need to practice (did I mention it yet?).
How long will it take to roll my R?
I had students who had been trying to roll their R’s for years with no success.
They watched Youtube videos, had advice from friends, teachers… but they didn’t get a single trill. However, after understanding how the sound is produced and having the proper guidance, they learned to roll their R’s in 2 days.
It’s possible but definitely not common.
You can expect to get your Spanish Rs sound -on a fairly normal basis- after 7-10 days of daily practice.
Learn how to trill your R step by step
Being able to pronounce the rolled R will make you speak more native-like and improve your self-confidence.
But how can you do it?
Step 1. Understanding how the trill is produced
Let’s do this more visual.
A simple experiment to see how to produce the trill
You only need:
- a piece of paper
- a surface to put it on.
(Don’t continue reading if you don’t have them).
Do you have them yet?
No? Go take them.
I’ll wait for you
1. Cut a small piece of paper -around 7×7 cm (or the size of a finger). If you can (and want) make it more real by cutting the paper with the shape of a tongue.
2. Put it on the table and hold it with a finger on the wider side. Blow on the opposite side (the tip of the tongue).
Find the right position to make it vibrate. This is not important for rolling your R’s (you can’t change the direction where the air comes from).
3. Experiment with the amount of airflow. (This is the important point). Notice how strong you need to blow to make it vibrate. If you blow gently, the paper won’t rattle.
*Try doing the same with a piece of plastic wrap. What happens?(Conclusions below)
A small practice to feel the trill
This might seem a stupid question:
Are you able to trill your lips?
Yes, your lips. Don’t worry, I’m not going ape. If you want to understand how to trill your R’s, it’s important to start here because you can feel the vibration in your own mouth.
As you saw in the previous exercise, trills have 2 elements in common:
- Something that is “relaxed” (we’ll see this later) and vibrates.
- A flow of air.
To master the skill of rolling your R’s you need to know what you’re doing. And practice. A lot of practice.
Practice is the key to success.
(Don’t skip this exercise. It’s the foundation to understand how trills work and feel it in your mouth).
1. Trill your lips breathing out:
- First, with a weak airflow. (Don’t continue reading, try!)
- Second, with a stronger airflow. Blow as much air as you can. (Try again).
Notice that it’s much easier to make your lips vibrate with a stronger flow of air.
2. Now, trill your lips breathing out:
- First, keep your lips tensed. (Try, it’s impossible).
- Second, keep your lips relaxed.
If you find it difficult try pouting/sulking like a kid.
Notice that, if your lips are totally relaxed, you can’t make them vibrate. They should be relaxed but with a little tension on the muscles around them.
Careful, not too much!
- Your lips must be relaxed enough but not too much. Remember the piece of plastic wrap in the previous exercise? It doesn+n’t vibrate because it isn’t a firm material. It’s too loose to vibrate.
- Strong airflow helps to produce vibration.
Now that you know how the trill works, let’s get into the mud.
Step 2. Tongue position to make it vibrate
I could tell you the exact position where you should place your tongue to trill the R.
But I will not.
First, because there isn’t a fixed point to roll your R’s. Some people say it’s the same place as when you pronounce the English D. Others say it’s the spot where you produce the letter L. Others…
Find out yourself.
Experiment. Put your tongue on different places of your palate: behind the teeth, further back in the mouth… It’s better you find yourself the point that works best for you.
To find out what’s the best place start with the 2 exercises below.
Exercise 1: Discovering your mouth (2-3 minutes)
This is a very simple exercise that speech therapists use with children who have problems rolling their R’s. It works with adults as well.
Maybe you think this is a stupid exercise but one of the things that make it difficult to pronounce the R is that we aren’t aware of what happens in our mouth, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do with this exercise.
Give it a try.
- Imagine your mouth is a house. You should clean it with your tongue. Thoroughly scour each part of it: remove cobwebs from the ceilings (palate); clean shelves (teeth); wipe the floor (bottom of your mouth), the walls (cheeks)…
Now get out of your house and do some exercises. Play with your tongue: move it up and down, sideways…Make the tip wide and then pointy…(this last step is very important)
- Imagine you have peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth. Try to remove it. Reach far back into your mouth with the tip of your tongue and scrape forward. Close your eyes and pay attention to that you touch. Move your tongue slowly. Feel how your palate changes from soft (back) to hard (front). Take your time. Now, pass your tongue over the ridge right behind your teeth (prize! That’s the famous alveolar ridge). To produce the trill, you should place the tip of your tongue there. Again, experiment. Maybe you find it easier to roll your R’s a little backward.
Exercise 2: The alphabet – Finding the right place to put your tongue (1 minute)
Say the alphabet out loud (in English). Say each letter slowly, paying attention to where you place your tongue. If it touches different parts of your mouth, where does it touch? Feel the path of motion of your tongue.
I recommend you take a mirror.
Identify the 3 sounds where your tongue touches the alveolar ridge (the gum ridge I told you before, right behind your upper teeth).
Did you get them?
Now you know where to place your tongue.
Concern 1. What part of my tongue should I place against the palate?
Now you know in what part of your mouth you should place your tongue to produce the trill but what part of your tongue is actually touching the alveolar ridge (palate)?
No, It’s not the tip.
It’s the blade. Very close to the tip but not the actual tip of the tongue.
Concern 2. I can’t relax my tongue to make the trill
It’s a very common concern.
First of all, and if you don’t know yet, you should know that rolling your R’s doesn’t mean tapping your tongue very fast. In fact, you don’t have to move your tongue at all.
This is very important.
Your tongue should only be in the right place, in the correct position, with the appropriate tension. But it’s the air when it pasts your tongue, that moves it back and forth producing vibration.
You are told that you have to relax your tongue in order to make it vibrate.
How the hell are you supposed to do that, if you have to keep it on the roof of your mouth?
Don’t worry. That’s not true.
I was about to write that 99% of the time people say your tongue should be loose, but that wouldn’t be true either. Actually, I haven’t yet heard anyone saying otherwise (that you need some tension in your tongue).
I did, at some point, say to my students to relax their tongues.
Shame on me.
One day, while researching exercises to help one of my students to get the trill (and practicing myself) I realized that I could roll my R’s with my tongue being tense. Quite tense.
It’s true that, when we speak and trill our R’s in real life, our tongue is never tight (the R’s wouldn’t sound natural). But it isn’t loose either.
If the tip of your tongue was loose, you would produce a sound similar to an aspirated T (the first T in potato) or double T in butter.
So your tongue should be a little tight to keep it there, on the roof of your mouth, and be able to make it vibrate. Otherwise, the strong airflow you need to produce the rolled R will blow away your tongue. (Remember the experiment with the plastic wrap?)
Step 3. How rolled Rs are produced – The airflow
Concern 3. How do I know if I’m expelling air with the right amount of strength?
There isn’t an exact amount of strength. But there is a range.
TIP: Inhale and inflate your cheeks. Then blow but keep your cheeks inflated. Notice that you blow out of the lungs.
That’s the way of expelling air to trill your R’s. The airflow comes out of the lungs.
Everyone can roll the Rs.
Being able to do it will make you look more native-like, and improve your self-confidence too.
- The blade of your tongue should touch the alveolar ridge or close to it. Experiment. Place your tongue on different places of your palate and find yourself what place works best for you.
- To produce the trill you shouldn’t tap your tongue yourself. It’s the air that moves it when it pasts your tongue.
- It’s much easier to make your tongue vibrate with a stronger flow of air. With the airflow coming out of your lungs. But if your tongue is totally relaxed, the strong airflow will blow it away.
Anyway, this is just one of the 33 sounds of the Spanish language so don’t get frustrated if you haven’t got to roll your R’s yet. Be patient. Practice a little every day and soon you will see improvements.
How to practice your Spanish Rs
You can practice with the 16 most difficult Spanish words with the letter R or with this video:
Or you can improve your pronunciation by learning to pronounce other sounds that are more frequent than the rolled R, such as [d], which may be pronounced in 5 different ways (or be silent sometimes); [b] and [β]; or Spanish T, that is pronounced in a different way from English T.