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Help Me to Trill the Spanish ‘R’ June 22, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Phonetics, Skype, Spanish.

The Spanish rolling ‘R’ (or trilled ‘R’) sound is always a fascinating sound to me. It is the most difficult sound I have ever encountered. I can make the sound alone, but I always find it difficult making it within a word, especially when it is at the middle of the word.

I looked up some phonetic websites (such as this one) and the way they teach to position the tongue is slightly different from the way I do it. Perhaps I should consult the native speakers and advanced learners.

Last night, just for the fun of it, I hosted a skpyecast called “Help me to trill the Spanish R”. There I met a Japanese lady, who lived in the vicinity of Tokyo. I asked if she could trill the ‘R’ sound, and she did not seem to understand what I meant. Her English was not very fluent, so I had to struggle to converse with her for a while.

I started to praise the Japanese language being a polite language, and the Japanese people are very polite in general. Then I ran out of topics…

Suddenly, she started to speak in Spanish!

I exchanged some simple sentences at the beginning, but couldn’t get very far. “No comprendo” (I don’t understand), and I had to switched back to English.

It turned out that she had lived in Spain for two years due to a job assignment of her father. She had not been to any Spanish language school, not before or during her stay. She learned the language mainly from a guitar teacher over there.

She then demonstrated the rolling ‘R’ to me in different words. It was perfect. I asked her how she learned it, and she said she couldn’t quite remember. It took her about a year to get used to it.

Then I asked how she dealt with verb conjugations in the Spanish language. She just did not know what the term meant.

Here is a language learner who has taken the natural approach. To this kind of learners, I just sound plain stupid with all the linguistic and grammatical jargons.



1. LearningNerd - June 22, 2007

I can’t really roll an R either. 😦 My mom’s first language was Spanish, and she’s been trying to teach me how to do it for years. No luck, lol. I’ve always wondered if it’s a physical/genetic thing, like how some people can wiggle their ears or touch their nose with their tongue, and others just can’t.

2. Dauthendey - June 29, 2007

If you can already make the sound, but have difficulty pronouncing it between vowels, like in “perro,” all I can say is practice, practice, practice. I was able to make this sound since I was a little kid, but, like you, when I started learning Spanish, I had a hard time putting it into action, especially between vowels. I recently spent a year and a half in Mexico, where spoke no English (except in classes I taught), and it took me maybe 8 months to finally be able to do it. So just keep practicing.

One thing that helped, though, is when two friends–the only ones we ever pointed out problems with my pronunciation, for which I am very greatful–told me I needed to roll my r’s at the beginning of words too. It is of course correct that r’s at the start of words are supposed to be rolled, I had just never noticed people really doing it much. But, oh well, I took their advice and started rolling away (I find doing it in that position, in “rojo”, for example, much easier). Well, after doing all that rolling–and you can even roll the r’s at the end of words too if you want more practice–I found it much easier to roll the r’s between vowels.

Just take care not a start rolling all r’s! Also, once one of my friends little sister went out with us, and she’s all: “Jeez, you roll your r’s too much!” But I find it helpful to exaggerate pronunciation in order to be able to use it properly and then back off later.

Hope this helps.

3. edwinlaw - June 29, 2007

Hi Dauthendey,
Very helpful indeed. I think I going to practice it more and more. May be a hundred times per day! First, I will try for a week or 2, and see if I can make any improvement.


4. Dauthendey - June 30, 2007

And when I started learning German, it took me at least ONE YEAR before I could do a uvular trill (German r, same as the French r). And that trill is much more difficult than the Spanish one. Just trying to say: If you really want to be able to do it, give it time.

For those who have a hard time doing the Spanish trill, maybe these instructions can help:

1) Have the tip, and only the tip, of your tongue touch the gums right behind your front teeth, right at that ridge behind your front teeth.

2) When in position, tighten the tongue muscle firmly against that ridge, then try to push a burst of air through, but keep the tongue very tight so that it is barely possible to get air through, but don’t move it from that position right behind the teeth.

3) Now, repeat step 2, only start relaxing the tongue ever so slightly, let it detach from that spot right behind the teeth just a tiny bit. You need to keep repeating step 2, trying to find the right balance of tightness and relaxedness (?) of the tongue muscle until you can get the tip of it to start flapping against that ridge right behind the front teeth. It is the strong push of your breath trying to get through that space that gets the tongue to vibrate. But don’t get discouraged! Keep trying every week for at least a year!

Suerte, and hope this helps!

5. edwinlaw - July 1, 2007

Thanks for the comprehensive guide.

Here is my problem. Most guides tell me to place my tongue behind my front teeth (alveolar ridge). But I can’t make the trill. Instead, I do my trill by placing my tongue near the hard palate which is further back from the alveolar ridge.

Any advise on this?

6. Steve - July 4, 2007

Rolling the “r” as in Spanish is the issue. Here is my view.

For the trilled :”r: which begins a word. “R” in Rioja as in the wine region. Place the tongue against the upper ridge of the mouth that is a little back of the upper front teeth, as if you are going to make an “n” or “d” sound. Then trill the tongue at that position. It should sound almost like “nrrrioja” or drrrioja”. Note that when trilling the tip of the tongue does not touch the palate or ridge of the mouth.

For the double “r” as in “perro”, dog, you have to trill the tip of the tongue in the same position, but no “n” or “d’ is needed nor should one be used. But exaggerate the “rrrr”, as in “perrrrro”. Practice saying it many times.

Now just say “pero” as in but. The same sound without trilling the “r”.

7. edwinlaw - July 4, 2007

This is exactly the confusion I have. I can make the trill by placing my tongue close to the upper ridge of my month. But other people keep telling me to place my tongue at that ridge right behind my front teeth. I cannot make any sound out of this at all.

I also reckon that I have to force much more air when trilling the ‘r’. However, I don’t hear the Spanish speakers doing it forcefully.

8. Steve - July 5, 2007

The Spanish trill more than many Latin Americans. It is only the initial R and the double R that needs to be heavily trilled. there is no doubt in my mind that the tip of the tongue is back from the front teeth.

9. Danling - July 12, 2007

The good news after reading this blog and all the comments is that I felt I am not alone. The bad news is it confuses me even more! I see different people describing how to trill the r differently. I am about to pull my hair out.

10. Dauthendey - July 17, 2007


Yeah, when I made the sound as a kid for fun I did it against the palate, and it was more difficult to bring the tongue forward to the alveolar ridge while speaking Spanish… I think I am doing it properly now, but it is a work in progress.

Why not practice trilling against the palate while moving the tongue forward? (For me, the trill stops once my tongue gets to the teeth.) Practice trilling moving the tongue back and forth. (I notice now that the tongue muscle tension and shape is a bit different as you move it.) Anyway, then try out the alveolar trill with word-initial r’s, as in rojo, which hopefully is easier for you than between vowels, as it is for me.

Danling, it’s just the tip of the tongue vibrating against the top of the mouth. For now, I’d just try to get it to trill anywhere (maybe against the palate is easier) and then later worry about where exactly the tongue should be for a Spanish trilled r.

11. Silvia - October 18, 2007

Only children can get the right accent. The best you can do is to listen with earphones to something spoken in Spanish. Let me tell you that I live in France and I have an accent as the language is not easy I thank God that I have the accent because as soon as I open my mouth and they listen to my accent they pay more attention and they try to help and to speak clearly. So do not worry for your accent for the Spanish speaking people to listen to an American accent is something cute.
Best luck

12. Rmss - October 24, 2007

That’s not true. While I was raised with an American/British accent I still got influences from Australian relatives when I was older (let’s say 16/17 years). When I was studying Russian I soon got a Moscow accent. Many people I know were able to get a right native accent with other languages aswell.

Edwin; is there a way I can contact you? E-mail/Skype?

13. Edwin - October 24, 2007

Yes, my Skype name is edwinhlaw. Thanks.

14. Angelique - February 4, 2008

hey, did anyone answer the question that lacking the ability might be genetic but can be overcome? I can’t, my husband can, and our 4 year old can in a big way. genetic????

15. malinka18 - February 25, 2008

Ah! the trill is my main stubbling block and I’m almost ready to throw in the towel but I know that I’m not alone. I’m currently studying Spanish online http://learnspanishrapidly.blogspot.com and enjoying the luxury of studying at my convenience. My husband already speaks 4 languages, Spanish being one of them, (I’m sadly still monolingual) and he picks up languages fast (he grew up speaking 3 as a child and then picked up the 4th as an adult). I sometimes think that some brains are wired for languages and others are not.

16. Rmss - March 3, 2008

I just wrote a post on my blog regarding the rolling R. I’ve had difficulties myself with it, but now I’m able to make a perfect rolled R, even in words.


17. RA_BCC - June 3, 2008

I don’t think it’s genetic in a sense of being passed from parent to child, but as species we have a language instinct. The problem in not being able to acquire the pronunciation is that you may be past the “critical age” of language acquisition. Anyway, a good book to read on this sorta of thing is Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.” http://www.amazon.com/Language-Instinct-Mind-Creates-P-S/dp/0061336467/ref=pd_bbs_sr_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1212541864&sr=8-2

18. Ramses - June 22, 2008

RA_BCC; you’re aware of the fact that the theory of ‘critical age of language acquisition’ is not confirmed, and that there’re test-cases which confirm the contrary (that people can learn languages all their life)?

19. expateek - October 2, 2008

Regarding the rolled or trilled “r” — while learning Afrikaans in South Africa, I gradually learned how to do this… by singing! I sang along with some favorite Afrikaans singers, and I think the combination of greater air movement and greater relaxation eventually did the trick!

This has come in very handy, as I now live in Poland where Poles take huge delight in massive “r” rolling. Extraordinary. I find that it takes almost no effort at all now, even at the beginning of a word, and that my mouth and tongue are much less tense, which makes everything easier.

So start singing (in the car is best — you can really belt it out!) and you’ll soon find it’s a piece of cake.

20. Gabbyy - January 30, 2009

hi good site thanks http://peace.com

21. yuki - June 10, 2010

It´s easier for Japanese speakers to do the ‘rr’ sound because of their mother tongue. This sound doesn´t exist in their language but when they speak quickly, their ‘r’ is like a cross between a ‘d’ and an ‘l’ and unbeknown to them they can pick up the ‘rr’ quicker than native English speaker! Do keep practising though as my boyfriend´s nieces are four years old and they couldn´t do the sound a year ago but now they can (they are Spanish) so it proves that practice makes perfect!

22. NeilB - July 11, 2011

If it makes others feel any better, I’ve been learning Spanish for 6+ years now, and I still can’t roll the ‘rr’ as well as I would like to. But i’m finally getting there.

I think part of the problem is that English speakers get disheartened when they can’t produce the sound straight away, and convince themselves that they’ll never be able to do it, or are somehow genetically incapable of producing the sound.

My experience is that learning the trill requires sustained practise over a period of months. I haven’t mastered it to date because in the past I only ever practised sporadically; however, over the last few weeks i’ve been practising consistently and have made a lot of progress, which i’ve found really encouraging.

Human speech is a complex series of sounds, which in turn requires fine movements of the speech appartus (tongue, jaw, throat, etc). When a new sound is being mastered, the brain needs to time to acquire and memorise these movements, and to integrate them among the other ones that are already known (muscle memory). This takes time, and practise – the same as learning to do a handstand, for example.

Simply learning to roll an ‘r’ is just the first step. Once you’ve learned to make the sound, you then need to practise combinations of ‘rr’ with other letters before and after it. Also, foreigner learners tend to find that they need to exhale quite forcefully in order to produce the trill at first. This often prevents the speaker from producing the sound easily in fluent speech. With practise, you’ll find that you can produce a trill with less and less force required, and it then starts to become easier to do this whilst speaking fluently.

If anyone is interested, my strategy has been the following:

1) First learning to make the sound, which took me about 2 weeks of daily practise.
2) Write a long list of common words with ‘rr’ in them: ‘perro’, ‘carro’, ‘burro’, etc. Practise until mastered.
3) Next step is then to add words starting with ‘r’ (always rolled), as I personally find these harder: ‘rey’, ‘robot’, ‘rollo’, etc.
4) Next, practise all these words after their artcles (‘el’, ‘la’, ‘los’, ‘las’, ‘un’ and ‘una’). This has been the hardest stage for me – ‘los’ and ‘las’ in partciular (for some reason I find going from an ‘s’ sound to the ‘rr’ to be a real pain).
5) Finally, find articles in Spanish and practise reading out loud. Concentrate on sentences where you struggle with the rolled ‘r’ and focus on those bits until you can pronounce them properly, even if you have to speak very slowly in order to get it right.

This has really helped me a lot, and I’m sure it can help you too. Remember – consistent practise is the key!


23. Edwin - July 11, 2011

Thanks, Neil! Great tips!

I myself has been stuck at steps 2 and 3 for a while. Time to move forward!

BTW, my blog has moved to http://www.towerofconfusion.com

24. Helena - November 5, 2011

I’m swedish, so to me the spansih rolling r and rr is not a problem, it’s basically the same as the swedish rolled r. My daughter is 3½ years, and until now, she has had problems with pronouncing the r’s, but now she’s getting a hang of it. I noticed that when she started saying the r’s correctly, in the beginning it was after d, then after t and now inbetween vowels. Now she has begun to roll the r’s in the beginning of words, too.

Maybe you could start practice like: dra, dre, dri, dro, then move on to tra, tri, tro, tre.. and then different combinations inbetween vowels: ara, aro, ero, ere, oro and so on. Finally, in the beginning of words: ra, re, ri, ro and so on.


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