Can't roll your R's? You're not alone.
It took me 8 years of goofing around to figure the sound out, personally, and it's even the last sound that native Spanish speakers acquire while growing up (Cataño, Barlow, and Moyna 2015).
This post will get into:
- How I (accidentally) learned to roll/trill my R's
- The specific three things this sound boils down to
- Five misconceptions that held me back
- A peek at what's going on in your mouth when rolling an R
- A step-by-step guide to making/reverse-engineering the sound
Note: Casually, we say that R's are "rolled." Technically speaking, R's are "trilled." I will use the terms trill and roll interchangeably throughout this post.
How I (accidentally) learned to roll my R's
In my sophomore year of high school, Mexican pop duet Jesse & Joy released their super hit ¡Corre!, a song that happens to include several dozen (little) R rolls. I loved the song and wanted to sing along. Unfortunately, I couldn't roll my R's.
A dedicated shower singer, however, I made a plan to figure out how:
- I'd do some initial research on YouTube about how the sound seemed to be made
- Each day I'd make a small adjustment—no particular rules, just a small variation from whatever I'd done the previous day
- Eventually I'd find the right combination of things and succeed
Unfortunately, things didn't quite work out. I didn't understand what was happening inside my mouth, so my "experiments" never ended up addressing the things that were actually holding me back. I gave up after a few weeks.
Then, one day, totally by accident, the stars alligned:
- I was eating pizza and burned the roof of my mouth
- In pain, I was massaging the roof of my mouth with my tongue
- As my tongue neared my teeth, I happened to sneeze
- My tongue got caught in the crossfire
- I got about two glorious seconds of trill
Over the course of the following week I tried to retrace my steps to recreate this sound. Before long I had it. Now I can hold a trilled R for as long as I want, make the trill from a variety of positions in my mouth, control the pitch of my trill, and impersonate an idling car well enough to make my nephew laugh.
Experimenting: The only thee things that matter
Complex and frustrating as it might seem, making your rolled/trilled R really comes down to just three factors. If you're struggling to make this sound, you're likely overcomplicating things.
Keep things simple.
We'll get into the nitty gritty details down below, in the step-by-step section, but, for now, I want to put a quick highlight on these three things. They're that important.
- Your tongue needs to be relaxed
- There needs to be a little space between your tongue and the roof of your mouth
- There neeeds to be sufficient air exiting your mouth to force your tongue to vibrate
All trill means is that air goes over an articulator (your tongue), causing it to vibrate. The "rolling" sound you hear is this vibration.
Factor 1: How relaxed your tongue is
Try this at home: (Gently) smack your belly, thigh, calf, or wherever you've got a bit of extra love on you. Notice how it jiggles? Now flex it as hard as you can and try again. Notice how it jiggles less, perhaps not at all? This concept is extremely important to understand. The exact same thing is happening with your tongue when you roll your R's.
That is to say: the "rolling" sound of the rolled R comes from your tongue "jiggling"; vibrating under the current of air passing between it and the roof of your mouth. If your tongue isn't loose enough to jiggle, nothing you do will get you that "rolling" R sound.
- If your tongue is too relaxed, you won't be able to lift it up --> you'll fail to roll your R
- If your tongue is too flexed/tense, it won't be able to vibrate --> you'll fail to roll your R
Factor 2: The amount of space between your tongue and alveolar ridge*
Imagine this: George R. R. Martin finally got around to finishing the 6th Game of Thrones book, and a crowd of fans who have been (impatiently) waiting decades to read it are lined up around the block at a book store to buy it. They've been waiting all night. The door opens, there's some commotion, and suddenly everybody is trying to get through the small doorway at once.
What happens to the crowd? Some people are going to hit the wall and bounce; some people are going to bump into each other and shuffle around; generally, there is chaos. It's nearly impossible for so many people to smoothly fit through such a small doorway.
A similar thing is happening inside your mouth when you make this sound: a lot of air is trying to esacape your mouth, but the gap between your tongue and the roof of your mouth is too small, so the air can't quite get out. Something has to give—and what gives is your tongue. Under this pressure, your relaxed tongue begins to vibrate: to jiggle up and down very quickly.
- If your tongue is too low, air will smoothly escape your mouth --> you'll fail to roll your R
- If your tongue is too high (touching the roof of your mouth, or almost doing so), air will be blocked and unable to escape your mouth --> you'll fail to roll your R
* We'll talk about what alveolar ridge means down below, in the step by section. Don't worry about it for now; just know that you're aiming your tongue for a place, and that place is called the alveolar ridge.
Factor 3: The strength of the air floating out of your mouth
Imagine this: you're at the sink and you want a drink. You've got a cup in your hand and you'd like to fill it up. You turn on the water. What happens next? If the water pressure is just right, you'll fill up your cup; if the water pressure is too low, no water will exit the faucet; if the water pressure is too high, the water will splash everywhere and your faucet might break.
Again, a similar thing is happening inside your mouth when you make this sound. There's a sweet spot in terms of how strong the airflow leaving your mouth should be.
- If your airflow is too weak, you'll fail to make any sound --> you'll fail to roll your R
- If your airflow is too strong, you'll go hrhhhhhhh and might spit at whatever's in front of you --> you'll fail to roll your R (and get weird looks)
Five misconceptions that prevented me from rolling my R's
The rolled R isn't a really mechanically complex sound. It's awkward to figure out at first, and incredibly frustrating, but if you figure it out once, it'll quickly become second nature. On my route to figuring out how to make this sound, a handful of things held me up.
That in mind, please know:
- Everybody can make this sound—it's not genetic, or anything like that
- This is not about you tapping your tongue at lightning speeds
- The trill is pretty simple, mechanically speaking; it's easy to overcomplicate
- If you're preceding your trill with a consonant, it might be throwing you off
- The rolled R sound and the normal English R sound are actually pretty different
Misconception 1: It's genetic, so only some people are able roll their R's
As the years passed, I began wondering if maybe something was wrong with me. Maybe my particular mouth shape or my genetics prevented me from making this sound. I felt like I'd done everything, but I still couldn't do it... and then, suddenly, I could. Now I realize that there are actually several types of trills, and you can make the trill with your tongue in a remarkable variety of positions.
So, first and foremost, don't give up. You can do this.
Misconception 2: You make the trill by slapping the roof of your mouth very quickly with your tongue
I think this one comes up because a lot of online tutorials suggest that if you say the word butter, and then say it faster and faster and faster, eventually you'll end up rolling an R. Or maybe it exists because the normal Spanish R is what's called an alveolar tap (the "T" sound Americans make when they say water or better,) and it seems like the trill is just doing that tap very quickly.
Whatever it is, this sort of explanation can be misleading because you are not consciously maneuvering your tongue when you roll your R's. It's an entirely involuntary consequence of the fact that a lot of air is trying to squeeze through a small gap. If you try to "muscle" your way through this sound by hammering your tongue against the roof of your mouth, you'll end up tensing your tongue, and (as we mentioned in the above section) a flexed/tensed tongue won't vibrate.
To make this sound, all you have to do is put your tongue into roughly the right position and then put a stream of air over it. The rest is physics.
Misconception 3: The sound requires some serious gymnastics to happen inside your mouth
As my failures stacked up, I began going to increasingly extreme lengths to roll my R's, trying out ever more convoluted tongue positions. At one point I had a multistep process going on: this goes here, that goes there, find the tension in my throat, wiggle my tongue, start breathing softly and then increase the pressure.... and so forth.
If you're doing anything that sounds remotely like that, you're overcomplicating things.
To make this sound, you need to do precisely two things:
- Lift up the tip of your tongue
That's it. It'll be awkward and frustrating while you're struggling to find the right position and airflow, but the whole process is pretty simple, mechanically speaking. I promise: You do not need to do a tongue workout to roll your R's.
Misconception 4: If you're struggling to roll your R, you should precede it with a T or D sound
A bit of context is required for this one.
Moving into the rolled R from a T or D sound (for example, trrrrr or drrrrr) can be helpful because it gets your tongue in the right position. The rolled R is technically known as an alveolar trill, and T and D are both alveolar plosives. Your intuitive knowledge of how T/D sounds work can become a sort of bridge that helps get you closer to making a rolled R sound.
Here's why this advice can be problematic:
Notice how plosive sounds pretty close to explosive? When you make a T or D sound, you do so by touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth. This creates a sort of seal that prevents air from escaping. When you then "let go" of your tongue, the air "explodes" out—and this explosion becomes the T/D sound.
As we mentioned in the section above, however, there needs to be a bit of a gap between your tongue and the roof of your mouth if you want to make the alveolar trill. If you press your tongue too hard into the roof of your mouth, you might also be flexing/tensing it, and that's also a problem—you can't make the trill unless your tongue is relaxed.
That in mind, I don't like this advice because it solves one problem but introduces other ones. Do explore the T/D sound a little bit in order to figure out the tongue position it requires. That position is in the same ballpark as the position you need to be in to roll your R, so it's good to be aware of. Once you've got the location figured out, drop the T/D sound: you don't need to make a consonant to make a rolled R.
Misconception 5: The rolled R is just a variation of our normal R
If you thought this, too, you would be forgiven. The IPA symbol for a trilled R is /r/, which looks like an R. In Spanish, the rolled R is also written with R's: arriba (up) or carro (car), for example. It's understandable that people end up thinking that a rolled R is just some sort of über R.
Lingustically speaking, though, these sounds are really quite different.
- The English R sound is known as a post-alveolar approximant. (Basically, it's made in the back of your mouth.)
- The Spanish trill is known as an alveolar trill. (Basically, it's made in the front of your mouth.)
- Notice that neither of those words' two parts (the place and the manner of articulation) are the same. They're made in different parts of your mouth, and the air exits your mouth in a different fashion.
So, before we get into the instructions, let's take a moment to clarify what you're not doing:
Say the word rose.
Now say it more slowly. Really drag that R sound out. Rose, rroose, errrrrrrr. As you're making this R sound, pay attention to what your tongue is doing. (If you don't feel it, restart the sound several times and try varying your speed.) You should be feeling your tongue retracting towards the upper-back of your mouth and approaching the roof of your mouth. (By definition, an approximant is a sound in which two articulators approach one another, but don't quite touch.) Notably, the tip of your tongue isn't touching anything.
Commit to memory what this sound feels like to make. This is the English R, and it is not how you make a rolled R.
With that out of the way, we can now get into how the Spanish R gets made.
What's happening in your mouth when you roll your R’s
This is easier to see than to put into words, so please refer to the below animation. I'll give a play-by-play below to help you make sense of what you're seeing:
In a basic sense, you're seeing the tip of your tongue rising up towards the back of your front teeth, but stopping before it gets there. Then it stands still and a gush of air exits your mouth. Because the gap between your tongue and the roof of your mouth is very narrow, turbulent airflow is produced as air tries to force through that gap, and this airflow causes your tongue to vibrate.
The main thing you need to take from the video is that this is an "apical to alveolar" sound. That's linguistic jargon for "stick the tip of your tongue on the gummy ridge just behind your upper teeth."
Having said that, there are also trills made with different parts of your tongue and at different parts of your mouth, so you don't need to worry about being too accurate. There are many different ways you can successfully make a trill sound. You can even roll your R's when your teeth are closed, so long as your lips are open.
For now, just do your best to get something trilling. It can even be your throat or your lips. Once you've figured out the mechanics of the rolled/trilled R in one place, that'll give you a handhold. You can make adjustments from there to get the sound that's used in Spanish, Russian, Catalan, German, or whichever one you happen to need for the language you're learning.
A step-by-step guide to rolling your R's
In the above sections we approached the trilled R from a few different angles, offering a simplified set of instructions each time. Here, we're going to put everything together, breaking the sound down as far as possible. I'm going to be using some technical terminology, but don't be frightened. I'll go slowly and make sure to explain each term.
Then, I'm specifically going to be talking about the Spanish flavor of the rolled R, but you can follow the instructions even if you're learning a different language. Once you get the mechanics of the sound down, you'll just need to make a small adjustment in terms of where your tongue is to get the one required for your language.
Step 1: Take a moment to get familiar with your mouth
Below is a simplified chart showing some of the major "landmarks" in your mouth. For now, you want to identify the tip of your tongue and the alveolar ridge. (The alveolar ridge is marked in red in the picture.)
Step 2: Find your alveolar ridge
Take the tip of your tongue stick it to the roof of your mouth. Now, imagine that you're painting the roof of your mouth with the tip of your tongue: slide your tongue as far back along the roof of your mouth as you can, then slide it forwards till you're touching the back of your teeth.
Now let's focus more on the front of your mouth. Stick your tongue to the back of your teeth, then slide it back about an inch along the roof of your mouth. Go back and forth. You should notice a hard bump—I think that going down this bump feels kind of like what it feels like when you're driving and run over a traffic bump.
This bump is your alveolar ridge.
(If you're having trouble finding it, you're probably too far back in your mouth. The edge of the alveolar ridge is very close to the top of the back of your teeth.)
If it helps, there are six English sounds that come nearby the alveolar ridge: T D S Z N L. Try slowly saying each one and pay attention to where your tongue is.
Step 3: Relax your tongue so it lies flat in your mouth
You've been dragging your tongue along the top of your mouth, so it's probably pretty tense. Take a moment to let go of that tension. Relax your tongue to the bottom of your mouth / back to its normal resting position.
Step 4: Gently raise the tip of your tongue toward your alveolar ridge
Emphasis on gently—it hardly feels like my tongue is moving at all. The very tip of my tongue lifts very slightly; that is all.
If something goes wrong for you, it's probably going wrong here. Consider the below chart:
Your alveolar ridge starts pretty much right where the back of your upper teeth end. You want to be around that "front" area of the ridge, where the green arrow is pointing, not "back" area the ridge, where the rew arrow is pointing.
All you're doing here is kind of "pointing" at the front of your alveolar ridge with the tip of your tongue.
An alternative approach
If raising your tongue up feels unintuitive, you can try lowering it instead:
- Get your tongue in position to say the word toy.
- Take a moment to observe what's happening in your mouth: your mouth is closed, your tongue is pressing into the alveolar ridge, maybe there is some tension in your throat. You're just about to open your mouth and say toy.
- Relax your tongue a little bit, but not so much that it drops to a resting position on the "floor" of your mouth. In step #2, your tongue was actively pushing into your alveolar ridge. Now, you simply want to stop "actively" pushing. Relax your tongue just enough so that it is lightly touching/resting upon your alveolar ridge. There should be no tension in any part of your tongue. You're not consciously doing anything — the tip of your tongue is just leaning against your alveolar ridge.
- Drop your tongue just a little bit further to create some space between the tip of your tongue and your alveolar ridge. (In the ensuing steps we'll experiment with how big this gap is.)
- Expel out of your mouth like hrhhh
- If you're in roughly the right position, physics will handle the rest. You don't need to quickly move your tongue or make any sort of adjustments.
Step 5: Make sure your lips are parted
The exact angle isn't super important—I can roll my R with my lips wide open and with them barely cracked. Don't do anything crazy; just let your lips naturally part. Imagine you're sighing: take a breath in, then let it out.
When we make an R sound in English, our lips are rounded. Stand in front of a mirror and say ahhh. Now say rrrr as if you were preparing to say rose. You should notice that your lips form a somewhat circular shape and slightly protrude when you say rrr. In Spanish, you don't round your lips like this.
The lips in this picture are open far enough to roll your R.
Step 6: With your tongue pointing at the top of your alveolar ridge, breathe
I recognize that the word "breathe" is ambiguous, but try experimenting. A variety of things can work. Breathe normally. Try coughing. Try saying errr, irrr, arrr, trrrr, drrrrr, brrr, orrr and so forth. Each variation will slightly change the position of your mouth, and one of those variations might work for you. If you find a position that sort of works (you get half a trill), reverse engineer what's happening and then make small adjustments.
If you don't get a trill, don't try to force it. Again, this isn't about you moving your tongue super fast. It's all about getting enough air through the right sized gap.
Anecdotally speaking, I feel kind of like my tongue is in a curved ) shape and that the air is bouncing off the midle of my tongue toward/over the tip of my tongue.
Step 7: Goof around
I get it: this is probably clear as mud. You're pretty sure you're doing exactly what I'm saying, but it's just not happening. You're wondering: can it really that hard to just lift the tip of your tongue up and blow?
Well, it was for me. I often felt dumb, and thought that all I was accomplishing was making embarassing noises in front of the mirror.
Know that you're going to spend a lot of time not quite getting it... and then things will just click. Suddenly you'll be able to feel it. There's a disconnect somewhere, and you've got to find it. You will find it, eventually.
So, try stuff. Experiment. Make a game out of it.
Whatever you just tried (and failed with), make a small adjustment: open your mouth a little wider, move the tip of your tongue a bit further back, use a stronger breath of air. Try imagining that there's a heavy weight on the back and middle of your tongue, so the only thing you can do is move the tip of your tongue, and breathe.
Step 8: Troubleshooting
Earlier on in the blog post, I said that this sound basically comes down to three things:
- How relaxed your tongue is
- The size of the gap between the tip of your tongue and your alveolar ridge
- How strong the airflow leaving your mouth is
So long as you've got your tongue in roughly the right place (see step #4 above or the chart below—the tip of your tongue should lift up toward the alveolar ridge), then all you need to do is experiment with these three factors.
This sound is caused by turbulence: too much air is trying to escape through too small of a gap, and something has to give. Your tongue gives by flapping/tapping/trilling. This is mostly physics, not skill or tongue gymnastics.
A few thoughts, based on my own experimentation:
- If you're getting a sound that's kind of like an L, your tongue might be a little too far back and/or might be lightly touching the alveolar ridge
- If you're gagging, spitting up, or making a sound that resembles a monster groaning, your tongue is way too far back along the roof of your mouth
- If you're making a sound that resembles ahhh or uhhh, or some other vowel, then your tongue isn't up high enough—there's too much space between your tongue and your alveolar ridge
- If you get a sound that's just like a normal breath coming out, or an audible sigh, you've got the same problem as above—your tongue isn't engaged enough
- If you get a sound that is similar to the noise you hear at the dentist's office when they stick that little vacuum tube inside your mouth to suck out your spit, you're close! When I get this sound, the tip of my tongue is angled back and my tongue is tense; try slowly easing the tip of your tongue down and towards your teeth while continuing to breathe
- If your ever feel pressure against your tongue, you've gotten too close to the roof of your mouth; relax a bit and lower your tongue—when I roll my R's, the only thing I feel with my tongue is air passing (roughly) over it
- If the underside of your tongue begins to feel tired, you're either (a) lifting the middle of your tongue up or (b) bending the tip of your tongue and pointing it back toward your palate; again, this is too much—relax your tongue and just slightly lift the tip of it up
- If you're worried that the problem might be your airflow, try making a gargling sound—you'll feel it in the back of your mouth where your uvula is. (If you can't make a gargling sound, then take a small drink of water and gargle it.) Pay attention to the pressure of the air as you're gargling: y0u don't need to use any more airflow than this to roll your R's
I wish I could give you all the answers, but I can't. Chances are, you've already read a bunch of blog articles and watched a bunch of videos, but your R's still aren't rolling. Just know this is normal, and that it doesn't mean there's something wrong with you or your mouth. It takes time (and frustration) to figure out new sounds. But if you keep at it, you'll get it.
If you're at wit's end, here's what I recommend:
- Bookmark a few videos/blog posts that you found helpful and periodically come back to them
- Pick a regular time to attempt to make the R sound—I personally did it each morning for 1 minute after brushing my teeth
- Learn more about how your mouth works: start with the place of articulation and manner of articulation, then continue exploring your mouth from there
As you learn more about how your mouth works, you'll come up with more ideas of things to experiment with; as you get more familiar with your mouth and how the rolled R works in theory, you'll gradually get a better idea of what you might be doing wrong.
At the end of the day, there's only so many ways your tongue can move, and your mouth is only so big. Keep at it, and before long, you'll be rolling your R's!
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