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The most famous and feared of the Spanish consonants, many English speakers never learn to properly pronounce (and roll) their Spanish “r”. If you can nail this consonant, you know you are well on your way to a decent Spanish accent! Similarly, those who keep to their English “r” pronunciation will stick out like a sore thumb.

What are we doing wrong?

English “r” and Spanish “r” are miles apart in how they sound. There really is not much similarity between them – they are produced in separate parts of the mouth. Approaching the Spanish “r” by starting from English “r” is not helpful – both “d” and “l” are closer in the way they are produced and how they sound to the Spanish “r”. The first thing we need to do is to forget our English “r”, otherwise known as the “rhotic r”.

What is the rhotic r?

In our English “r”, the tongue tip is curled towards the roof of the mouth. The “r” sound is produced by the lips and tongue in combination:

 

Listen to a Spanish word which contains plenty of “r”s: “carretera”:

 

Now listen to that word, using the English rhotic r:

 

Those that are able to roll their “r”s may overdo it, which also sounds a bit weird in casual conversation:

How to produce the Spanish r

Listen again to the word “carretera”, in slow motion:

 

There are actually two different “r” sounds at play within this word. These are the “trill”, and the “flap”.

The trill

This is the grand “rrrrrr” sound which most English speakers associate with Spanish:

 

The sound is produced by the tip of the tongue tapping against the hard ridge behind the front teeth (the alveolar ridge). This is roughly the same tongue position that’s used when producing a “d” sound. To make the sound:

  1. Relax jaw
  2. Tongue position is close to alveolar ridge
  3. Air flows between the tongue and the roof of the mouth. Don’t blow too hard – it should feel like more of a sigh
  4. Tongue taps in rapid succession against the alveolar ridge. This is the “rrrrrr” sound.

If you are struggling to produce this sound, try some of the exercises below. Make sure that your jaw is relaxed, and tongue flexible. Have a glass of water as this will help to loosen things up.

Exercise

Repeat the phrase “put it up”. This phrase imitates the tapping of the tongue, and is a good guide for where the tongue should be placed in the rolling r sound.

 

  • Make a cat “purr” sound: “prrrrrr”
  • Start the roll with an “h”: “hrrrrr”
  • Start the roll with a “d”: “drrrrr”
  • Replace “r” sounds with “d” sounds. This is the closest consonant we have in English, and gets the tongue in the correct position. When pronounced fast enough, it sounds like the Spanish r. Try with words “practice” (ie, “pdactice”), “try”, “pretend”.

When is the trill used?

The trill is used whenever a word starts with “r”. Listen to and repeat these words. Notice how subtle the trill sound is:

Rico

 

Rotundo

 

Romero

 

The trill is used whenever the letters “rr” are used:

Perro

 

Ferrocarril

 

Corro

 

The trill also occurs after l, n, and s. Listen to the following examples, and repeat:

 

Alrededor

 

Al rato

 

Enrique

 

Did you find these last words hard? These are some of the most challenging sound combinations to get the trilled r correct. This is because the tongue is in a different position following the previous consonant, and has to move to the right place to produce the trilled r.

If you have difficulty with these, try moving your mouth into a smile as you pronounce the r sound. This will help to get your tongue in the right position for the trill.

The flap

Many English speakers will apply the trilled r all the time. However, the “tap” (or “flap”) is more common, and actually a lot easier to produce.

What is the tap?

In the trill, the tongue taps against the roof of the mouth multiple times. In the tap, however, only one tap against the roof of the mouth occurs, as in the word “caro”:

 

In fact, confusing the trill and tap in the word above can cause confusion, as this creates two different words, “carro” (meaning “car”), and “caro” (meaning “expensive”):

 

The tap is easy, because it actually already exists in American English. The word “butter” (or “udder”) contains the tap in the “tt” sound:

 

The tap is just one tap of the tip of the tongue on the fleshy alveolar ridge (the ridge at the top of your mouth, behind your top teeth).

When to use the tap

The tap is used whenever the trill isn’t. This tends to be single “r” spelling, occurring anywhere in the word except for the start:

Otro

 

Para

 

Hombre

 

Hierba

Phonetic symbols

Although you don’t need to know the symbols to be able to pronounce these sounds, it’s useful to know them as you’ll see them crop up later in this course, under some of the more advanced modules.

Tap: /ɾ/
Trill: /r/

Exercise