Learn to Roll Your Rs! – A Step-by-Step Beginner’s Guide to the Alveolar Trill

by: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

You are learning a new language. It’s ridiculously difficult to master as you expected it to be. As a believer in hard work, you started an ultimate conquest to its grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. You defeated the first two.

Then you realize there’s still an annoying rolled R existing in the language. You practiced, you read (and probably watched) about a thousand trilled R tutorials, and you failed. Frustrated and sad, you had to admit that you just can’t do the trick.

That’s the problem we’re solving today. Hopefully, this article will bring you a completely unique way to look at and practice your rolled R, and help you to eventually achieve a crisp, heavenly sound of an alveolar trill.

This article will be divided by following subheadings. Feel free to jump to only the parts you need:

  1. What is alveolar trill
  2. Debunking common myths
  3. Some common struggles (that we’ve all met)
  4. Rolling your Rs

1. What is alveolar trill

Alveolar trill, also known as a rolled R, is a consonant sound that’s used in about 40 per cent of all the languages in today’s world. You can hear rolled R in Spanish, Russian, Italian, Greek, Arabic, and over 2000 other languages spoken by people on every continent. Technically speaking, this sound is made by forcing air into the limited space between the tongue and the ceiling of the mouth and causing the tongue to vibrate. To many native English speakers, the rolled R is notoriously hard to pronounce since there isn’t an equivalent in the English language.

2. Myth Debunking

The biggest myth around this topic is that the ability of rolling your R’s genetic. In fact, alveolar trill is a skill that can be acquired through practicing. Many people whose mother language doesn’t have this sound eventually gave up trying due to the belief that it has to do with genetics and the shape of a person’s speech organs, while in reality most people have the ability to achieve alveolar trill, and all that’s needed is finding the right way.

Contrary to how complicated it sounds, pronouncing a rolled R actually doesn’t involve voluntarily activating the muscles in your tongue. Rather than “rolled,” “blown” would be a more accurate description. During the pronunciation, your tongue should stay motionless and let exhaled air to force  the tip of the tongue into vibration.

3. Common struggles

Many tutorials would recommend starting practicing by tapping your tongue on the ceiling of the mouth (hard palate) and mimicking a hard, unrolled R in Spanish. By continuously repeating this practice, in theory, the muscles in your mouth would get used to this movement and grasp the essence of alveolar trill.

In reality, however, this technique often fails to work. The reason behind it is simple: to roll your Rs, the different muscles on your tongue have to be able to work independently. While the muscles on the bottom half of the tongue need to provide enough support to make sure it touches the hard palate and creates the “tapping” movement, the muscles on the tip of the tongue have to be able to completely relax, and thus allow the vibration. When the muscles are stiff, oral air circulation won’t be powerful enough to force the tongue into motions. Many of us, due to our own mother languages, are simply not able to control the two sets of muscles separately, as our daily conversations often require them to cooperate and work as a whole.

4. How to roll your Rs

The answer is simple: Gravity.

Rather than training to activate the muscles, it’s more important to learn how to deactivate them. Lie down on a flat surface or tilt your head up to a 90° angle, relax your tongue, you`ll find the gravity has helped you to pull it down to touch the hard palate. Now your tongue is prepared in a pre-tapping position automatically, without pulling a muscle.

The next step is also simple: exhale. Allow strong exhalation to force the air pass the oral cavity and into the small gap between your tongue and hard palate, you’ll soon notice the tip of your tongue starts to vibrate. Now that the muscles are completely relaxed, this process should be much easier to achieve than when they are stiff.

Once you are able to sense a vibration, you are officially enrolled in the alveolar trill exercises. Keep your head tilted, practice every day, until both two parts of the tongue muscles get used to the movements and are able to function separately. Once vibration is guaranteed, try gradually bringing your head down to a 45° angle while making the sound, and then eventually down to the normal position. At this point there’s no need to involve the vocal cord, as the practice is all about muscle training and physical memory. The more time you spend on practicing every day, the quicker you’ll be able to vibrate your tongue while looking horizontally.

Now it’s time to do some letter combinations. The vibration noise you now are able to make should sound like a “tr.” Use your vocal cord and make a “dr” sound, you’ll find it more challenging. This is because now your exhalation activates not only the vibration of your tongue but also your vocal cord. As the old saying goes, practice is still very much the key to success.

When you are confident enough with your “tr” and “dr” combinations and are ready to move on, the next ones down the list should be “fr”, “pr”, “br”, and “vr”. Leave “kr” and “gr” to the very end, as you’ll find them extremely hard to read since the pronunciation of “gr” barely allows any air exhalation. Your oral muscles should be very well trained by the time when you start picking them up. Once you’ve mastered “gr,” you’ll be ready to move on to the individual “r” sound, as in the Italian word “amore.” Contrary to many people’s belief, being able to vibrate your tongue is merely the beginning of the whole practice rather than the end, as each letter combination and word has their own challenges.
If practiced daily, the whole progress should take from two weeks to two months. When the letter combinations are no longer issues to be dealt with, it would be time to incorporate your trilled R in Spanish, Italian or actual words from whichever language you are learning. It’s OK if you don’t yet have a huge vocabulary – trying to speak English with a weird, rolled R accent could also be fun.