It seems that native speakers of certain languages are able to roll their ‘r’s more easily than others. For me, as a native English speaker currently learning Spanish, it’s very difficult to pronounce rolled ‘r’s, which is also known as the alveolar trill. For example, trying to convey the name of a Cuban bar (Barrio) was particularly difficult when trying to arrange to meet up with my Spanish friend Eva recently. Pronouncing ‘r’s in an English accent, in the English form, is a huge disadvantage to communication in Spanish.
An Italian friend tells me that some children are taught the word “rabarbaro” (rhubarb) at school to help them pronounce their ‘r’s correctly. This word is not commonly used in the Italian language otherwise. In fact, when I told my Italian flatmate this word, he didn’t know what it meant. It could have been my pronunciation of course, but I wrote it down for him as well!
Having said all of this, one of my best friends, Mairi, is Scottish, and has no problem with rolling her ‘r’s, especially as you need to roll the r in her name to pronounce it correctly. So, is it down to accent?
This led me to try and find a way to learn how to do this properly. It is all in the tongue vibration, apparently. A lot of online help assumes you have an American accent, but I know of a few tips for us Brits.
The short term solution, for emergency use whilst you practice getting your tongue around your ‘r’s, is to pronounce the r as a hard D. You have to say it really fast to get away with it, but it does work! “Barrio” becomes “baDio,” and at least Eva will now know where I want to meet up for cocktails in the near future.
It’s better to try than to risk becoming a tentative speaker, as this is something that can really damage your confidence with speaking new languages.
Of course, in the long term, the only solution is practice, practice, practice. This video tutorial really helped me work out how to position my tongue properly, which is the basic principal to getting your alveolar trill right. If you’re not a visual learner, the WikiHow article is useful too. There are tongue twisters you can use to practice, but assuming that if you’re not confident with your rolled ‘r’s just yet, your level of Spanish isn’t advanced enough for this, so I like to stick to a short list of familiar words to practice with to begin. “Ferrocarril” (railway) is the perfect word to start off.
What works best for you? Does anyone have any other tips?