For some, pronouncing the Spanish R comes easily and naturally. But for others it takes practice and patience. If you fall into the second camp, prepare to have all your pre-conceived notions about Spanish pronunciation shattered in just a matter of minutes. Ok, maybe that's a bit dramatic, but nevertheless, this technique has never failed any of my students. So get ready because this could be the blog post that sets you free. In just a few minutes, it's very possible you'll be rolling your R's like Lou Diamond Phillips singing La Bamba in my favorite move from 1987.
The hard English "R"
In English we use what I call the "hard R", which is best depicted in a pirate's growl..."Arghh". This is an extreme example, I know, but I use it to emphasize what you don't want to say when speaking the Spanish R. English words such as "are", "senior", and "air" are additional examples of what not to use as your guiding examples when learning the Spanish R.
The Spanish "R"
Contrast those with the Spanish "R", which is much lighter, faster, and delicate. At its essence, the Spanish R is pronounced when a small puff of air coming from your through that--with the tip of your tongue lightly touching the roof of your mouth--pushes your tongue forward just slightly enough for the air to escape. This action makes a little bump sound, which is the sound you want to target. The proper double R sound can be produced by a rapid repeat of this motion, where your tongue flaps back and forth near the roof of your mouth as one by one little pockets of air escape rapidly (what I refer to in the video below as the helicopter or cat sound).
Think of the Spanish word "Para", which means "to", "for", or "stop". English speakers will have a tendency to pronounce it "Par-uh", which is incorrect. The correct pronunciation is more similar to "Pod-uh". As a first step, you can simply replace the "R" in "Para" with an English "D" and pronounce it "Pod-uh". Notice how when you say it correctly this way the tip of your tongue naturally finds its place near the roof of your mouth for a split second. This first step in itself should prove that you can roll your R's!
The next piece is to repeat "Pod-uh" over and over again as you slowly lighten the degree to which your tongue touches the roof of your mouth each time you say "R". Start repeating the word slowly and don't be afraid to over-emphasize each letter at first so you can really feel your tongue strike upward against the top of your mouth...POD-uh, POD-uh, POD-uh... Gradually speed up the repetition and as you do, scale back the force of each tongue strike.
In English we have heavy, forceful sounds, so training your mouth muscles to be lighter and more delicate may sound funny, but it's a big part of proper pronunciation as well as developing an authentic Spanish accent. Repeating this exercise will train the muscles in your tongue and mouth to get more agile, soft, and quick. I like to compare this to a soccer player who begins with heavy, solid feet, without a lot of control. But over time she learns to be light and soft on her feet to really glide swiftly with the ball.
Udder and Butter
Two more examples of words that can help you develop this technique are "udder" and "butter". Repeat the exercise above with these two words. As you say them faster and faster and as your tongue becomes lighter and lighter, drop the "-er" and simply extend the "d" and "t" over and over again, like this:
uddddddddddd and buttttttt
Doing this exercise with these two words will specifically help improve your ability to roll the double R. The video below will explain this with more clarity, but the desired objective is to make the helicopter sound.
This technique has helped lots of students, many of whom were convinced they would never learn to roll their R's. Instead of stopping here, watch the video below to actually hear these sounds and practice rolling the Spanish R and double R with me.
Some people may wonder if it would be more effective to learn Spanish by actually going to a Spanish speaking country and learning the language through immersion. While there are immense benefits to being able to immerse yourself in a language and culture, there are a couple drawbacks too that you should be aware of. So in the spirit of simplicity, here is the eSpanishTeacher list of pros and cons for learning a language by living in a foreign country.
1. An experience you will likely never forget
2. You will meet amazing people that will become lifelong friends
3. You'll gain an appreciation for new cultures, customs, new ways of thinking, and new perspectives on life; you're also likely to increase your appreciation for diversity of thought, value systems, social structures, etc.
4. Not only will you learn the language, you'll pick up the regional accent, slang, vocabulary, and linguistic nuances specific to that region.
1. You will surely miss out on learning the structure of the Spanish language. In a formalized learning setting you'll be taught the construct of the language, how communication is put together, rules for structuring sentences, grammar, pronunciation, agreement, irregular uses of certain words, etc. For many students, this foundation is essential as a jumping off point for reinforcing confidence and further development of language skills. If you miss out on this, you may find yourself asking basic questions down the road and lacking the confidence you need to refine your speaking skills.
2. Whether it's pronunciation, grammar, or vocuabulary, you may form bad habits that are difficult to overcome.
3. Similar to #2, you may learn uses of words or rules that are unique to your specific region and when you travel outside that region you could be so entrenched in "your way" of communicating that you are unable or unwilling to pivot and adapt to the new region's way of communicating.
4. Living away can be costly and can disrupt balance in your life. While some people jump at the chance for new adventures, a move to a foreign country to learn a language would require one to dedicate many months at a minimum to the endeavor. Proficiency in Spanish is not something that can be achieved in a matter of a few weeks. Uprooting your life to live abroad has some very real ramifications that need to be considered, to name a few:
-leaving/changing jobs, finding employment
-legal status in the new country
-diet and lifestyle changes
So while learning a language by physically moving and immersing yourself in another country's culture could be a wonderful experience, there are realities that should be considered.
Lucie Fink studied Spanish in high school but hasn't spoken much at all since then. Now, she wants to brush up on her Spanish language skills in a quick 5 days. Is it possible in such a short time to effectively start speaking Spanish? Watch the youtube video and find out how well Lucie does on her 5-day crash course to re-learning how to speak Spanish.
I won't give away the result, but Lucie does cite four main principles where she'll have to be disciplined: time, dedication, practice, and repetition. Watch the short video to see how she does.
How to pronounce the Spanish B
One of the first letters you should learn to pronounce properly is the Spanish "B". The Spanish B has two different pronunciations. When it is at the beginning of a word, it is pronounced similar to the English "B", like in the word "Beach".
Spanish: Bella, Bien, Bueno, Baloncesto. All these are pronounced with the English "B" as in "Beach".
However, when "B" appears in the middle of a word, the pronunciation is a quite a bit softer, almost like an English "V".
Spanish: Abejorro, libro, ibérico. All these are pronounced with a sound that is a bit closer to the English "V", and not such a hard "B". Note that in these cases the Spanish "B" is not identical to to the English "V", just a little big closer to it than the hard English "B".
This is where we chat about all things Spanish. Feel free to ask a question, challenge me, passionately disagree, or rant about whatever. Just make it interesting.