Pity the Spanish speaker who can’t roll his r’s

In two excruciating posts (here and here), Madrid blogger Andrés Adrover Kvamsdal described his months-long quest to master his native language’s trilled r sound, a journey that involved surgery followed by months of daily speech therapy. It’s clear from the responses to these posts that Sr. Adrover isn’t alone.

I haven’t been able to find any statistics on r problems among adult speakers of Spanish, but there’s no doubt that the trilled r is a hard sound to learn. About ten percent of Spanish-speaking children don’t master it until age six or seven, and almost six percent are still working on the sound in their “tween” years. People with r problems substitute a tap for the trill (that’s what I do, alas), or even an entirely different sound (d or g). Some speakers produce a trill, but “cheat” by trilling the back of the tongue, French-style, instead of the tongue tip, or muddy the sound by involving other articulators (lips, cheeks, etc.) along with the tongue.

Spanish speech therapists usually start by putting their clients through a series of “tongue calisthenics” to strengthen the muscle. The usual technique for mastering the trill itself is to gradually morph an easier type of tongue vibration toward the Spanish norm, e.g. working forward from a French trill or backward from a “Bronx cheer”. Therapists also use a variety of props to help their clients find the correct tongue position and movement. These include mirrors, tongue depressors, and electric toothbrushes — or vibrators, as a Brazilian friend once recommended to me with utter seriousness.

A few summers ago I worked diligently on my own r, using the work-it-forward method. (This is also called the tiger method because you sound like a sick tiger.) After intensive practice I was able to get my tongue tip to vibrate, but could never learn to use the vibration in actual speech. At least I can console myself with the knowledge that some native speakers have the same problem. Misery loves company!

13 thoughts on “Pity the Spanish speaker who can’t roll his r’s

  1. Rebecca

    My Spanish teacher himself is a native who can’t roll his Rs. I don’t think it’s an issue unless you make it an issue yourself. When you think of a list of things that might stop someone being hugely sucessful, popular, loved.. distinctive pronunciation is certainly no where on it.

    Interesting blog, thanks!

    Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      Thanks for writing — and reading! Say hi to your Spanish teacher for me. It sounds like he’s doing a great job motivating you to learn Spanish, R or no R. Saludos — Judy

      Reply
  2. Aaron

    I can’t roll my r’s… I’m a native Spanish speaker and I haven’t been able to do it since I was little… My mom tried to teach me by with placing a pencil between my tongue but that didn’t work… I’ve tried it once in a while ever since to see if I can do it but I always end up defeated… I feel like a fake.

    Reply
      1. Aaron

        The only professional help I’ve tried was teachers back in Mexico. I’m not 100% sure if I have this thing called being “tongue-tied” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ankyloglossia
        In there it says that people that are tongue-tied have problems rolling R’s. That might be why I’ve never been able to do it.

        Oh well, it has been a long time and I’ve survived still w/out rolling R’s. I’m not sure if speech therapy could do me any good, but I’ll look into it. Honestly, I just try to avoid to use words that I have to roll R’s. Cheers!

        Reply
  3. Michelle Curiel

    Spanish was my first language, I learned how to speak English at around 5. I’ve never been able to roll my R’s either! People laugh in disbelief when I tell them, and then proceed to try to ‘teach’ me how to roll my R’s – my favorite is when English speakers roll their R’s over and over, almost boasting that they can and I cannot, and then try to teach me, as if I haven’t tried myself all of my life. I used to get embarrassed about it, but I’ve stopped caring by now and laugh along with everybody else, although I’d like to be able to do it someday, but I don’t want it enough to get a surgery! I too thought I was the only one, until I googled, it and realized there’s a lot of us out there! It’s always been a little frustrating that I couldn’t roll my R’s, but at least I’m not the only one 🙂 Wishing you luck! (and me too!)

    Reply
  4. Hank

    Do you know anyone who has had the surgery as an adult. I have been trying to trill my r’s for 8 years without success.

    Reply
  5. Hank

    Do you know anyone who has had a frenectomy or frenotomy as an adult. I have been trying to trill my r’s for 8 years in my attempt to speak Spanish.

    Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      I don’t know anyone personally, and would hesitate to recommend the surgery unless this (i) this is for some reason a ‘do or die’ situation for you (which is hard to imagine, and (ii) you have exhausted other possible avenues. I’ve been told that if I really wanted to lick the problem I should work with a dialect coach, the kind that actors and singers use. Have you explored that route?

      Reply
  6. Norman

    Yeah, I’ve been trying to roll my r’s for years. All my siblings could, but I couldn’t. I was tongue tied as a baby and they did a minor slice under my tongue, but it didn’t do much good. I cannot stick my tongue out of my mouth very far. I love Spanish and have done everything I can think of to do this sound. Now I do a kinda of zzzz but back against my palate, not were the normal “z” sound is formed. so perro sounds like pezzzo. ZZZamón cazzzo. My Spanish speaking friends say it is sufficient so that I don’t draw a lot of attention to my badly rolled r’s

    Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      Lately I’ve been practicing with “Dracula”, i.e. “Drrrrrrracula”. Helps a bit, but still not there.

      Reply
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