Alveolar trills

One aspect of Spanish pronunciation that can be tricky to master is the trilled or rolled r, which is also known as an alveolar trill /r/. This sound is also used in Italian and many other languages. Some people seem convinced that if you can’t already make this sound, it’s impossible to learn.

If you are having trouble with the Spanish r, this blog post might help. It breaks it down into a four step process and explains clearly what to do at each stage. There’s another explanation of how to make this sound here.

Once you’re got those r’s rolling, here’s a tongue twister to practise with:

Erre con Erre Cigarro
Erre con Erre Barril
Rápido corre el carro
Repleto do ferro en el ferrocarril

It is possible, in fact, to learn to make any sound used in any language, even the rolled r, and other tricky sounds like the clicks used in some African languages and the back-of-the-throat sounds of Arabic. It takes a lot of listening and practise. An understanding of the mechanics of how the sounds are produced can help as well.

There are online introductions to phonetics and phonology here and here, and this site shows you the relative positions of the tongue, teeth, lips, etc when pronouncing various sounds.

I can usually manage alveolar trills, though sometimes find the double rr in the middle of words such as carro a bit tricky and I have to slow down to get it right.

17 thoughts on “Alveolar trills

  1. Trills can be tricky even for native speakers of the languages with them. For example some Polish speakers substitute various other rhotics such as [ɹ] or even [ʀ] for it, which is usually considered a speech impediment. I have myself had problems pronouncing it until a few years ago, and I still find some words problematic. However, in Polish [ɾ] is acceptable as an allophone. I don’t think it is impossible to learn for the speakers of languages lacking it (it would have to have something to do with genes to be so, which is of course not the case :)).

  2. First of all; thanks for linking.

    Second; it’s no shame to slow down, you don’t have to talk like a machine gun like some Spaniards do. As long as it’s not too slow. And still: practice makes perfect, so in the end it’s possible to talk fast and still make a correct rolled rr.

    I think, the main problem with a lot of English speakers is that they only speak English. Therefore they think it’s impossible to learn other sounds, because often it won’t work on the first try. Again: practice makes perfect and anything is possible.

  3. Oh, and about the speech impediment: only a small number of people who think they can’t roll their r’s have this. The majority is able to make one after some (or a lot) of practice.

  4. As a Spanish speaker I was reading about your problems with our r sound and I must tell to all those people finding problems with these sound not to desperate. When I was a child I couldn’t pronounce it!! Even my sister do not pronounce it and she is 37! So it shouldn’t be so important.
    My English pronunciation is not very good, but I can communicate (more or less, I am sure there are some grammatical problems in my writing too). I think that is the point!(or am I lazy not learning to pronounce perfectly?)
    One last thing, the last line is not Spanish, the Spanish is:
    Repleto de hierro en el ferrocarril
    What is written seems more like Portuguese may be.

  5. When I studied Spanish, we spent a lot of time distinguishing between the short trill (single R) and the long trill (double R). I still remember the tongue-twisting nonsense rhyme we learned:

    Y aserrín, aserrán,
    Los maderos de San Juan,
    Piden queso, piden pan,
    Los de roque, alfandoque,
    Los de rique, alfañique,
    Los de trique triqui tran.
    Triqui triqui triqui tran,
    Triqui triqui triqui tran.

    Those last two lines: killer.

    (If I remember correctly, “maderos de San Juan” are carousel horses; in the rhyme, they’re “asking for cheese, asking for bread.”)

    Thanks for the link to Spanish Only–I’ve been looking for some encouragement in getting back into Spanish!

  6. La versión que aprendí yo es la siguiente:

    Erre con erre, cigarro;
    Erre con erre, barril;
    Rápidas corren y ruedan las rápidas ruedas del ferrocarril.

    Es verdad que r y ɾ son difíciles para la mayoría de angloparlantes. Durante meses, caminaba por las calles y practicaba: “resurrección”, “recorrer”, “una prueba sobre la tierra”, “no impidas la cierre de puertas” etc. Por suerte, no se escucha nada en las calles de Santiago debido al ruido de las micros.

    I learnt this version:

    Erre con erre, cigarro;
    Erre con erre, barril;
    Rápidas corren y ruedan las rápidas ruedas del ferrocarril.

    It´s true that r and ɾ are difficult for most English speakers. I spent months walking the streets practicing: “resurrección”, “recorrer”, “una prueba sobre la tierra”, “no impidas la cierre de puertas” and so on. Fortunately you can´t hear anything on the streets of Santiago because of the noise of the buses.

  7. Another one that I was taught this summer from my [[Spanish] [teacher]] who said that many Spaniards themselves use to practice their own /r/’s!

    El perro de San Roque
    No tiene rabo
    Porque Ramón Ramírez
    Se lo ha cortado

  8. Once you can do it the trap is to say r and ɾ the same way, hence the use of something like “el cierre de puertas” or “Porque Ramón Ramírez” to practice the difference

    Una vez aprendida, la tendencia es pronunciar r y ɾ como si fueran el mismo sonido. Por esa razón se usa algo como “el cierre de puertas” o “Porque Ramón Ramírez” para practicar la diferencia.

  9. (Pedantic note.. it´s EL cierre as per second post, not sure what I was thinking the first time. Sorry

    Pie de página pedántica: obviamente EL cierre no LA cierre. No sé que estaba pensando. Disculpen)

  10. Simon can you tidy me up…? I am writing nonsense. pedántico…. since pie is masc. I´ve been working too long and need to go to bed!

  11. I’ve learned to do the alveolar trill for Spanish without too much trouble as an English only native speaker (I’m not saying it was reallky easy). I just said perro and pero over an over again to distinguish /r/ from /ɾ/ (trill vs. flap).

    I thought I heard that as a child one can learn any phoneme, but as one gets older some non-native phonemes might not be learnable. Is this true?

  12. This is one of the one sounds that’s been driving me nuts. I really want to be able to pronounce [r] and [ʁ] but I nearly always end up saying [ʀ]. I totally agree that it’s possible to learn any of the sounds used in any language (bar a physical problem with the vocal tract) too.

  13. Thanks for posting the links. They’re pretty neat.

    Estonian has that trilled r and I find it a diabhail to do it!

    I also have trouble with õ, the close-mid back unrounded vowel.

    Estonian: kõrv [kɤrv] ‘ear’

    Strangely, I found (on Wikipedia) that it’s present in:

    Irish: Uladh [ɤlˠu] ‘Ulster’

    I guess I will have to listen alot closer.

  14. @Colm: Chinese (pinyin) “e” is also pronounced [ɤ] (some say [ə]. It was the hardest vowel for me to learn.

  15. I find I can pronounce /r/ quite easily, and I’ve been able to since I was young, even though I only speak English, with a NorCal accent. After /e/, however, I often find that I can’t do it (“perro” defeats me), and I’ll usually reduce /e/ to /ɛ/ (X-SAMPA /E/, in case the epsilon doesn’t show up).


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