Are you studying a language that requires a rolled R, but you feel like the technique is escaping you?
Turn to pop culture for inspiration.
Method #1: Vibrate your tongue. You may remember some variation of this Rrrrrruffles have Rrrrridges ad, which married the rolled R sound to the peaks and troughs of a popular potato chip.
Please note, the cartoon baby in this ad defies the laws of phonetics! His method of vibrating his tongue while it’s sticking completely out of his mouth would produce (at best) a really lame raspberry.
Method #2: Imitate Catwoman for perfect rolled Rs. Eartha Kitt as Catwoman was a purr-veyor of purr-fect rolled Rs. Unfortunately, this R is a bit too extended for use in most languages, and may cause the sudden appearance of caped crusaders.
Third time’s the charm! Method #3 is a drumroll. If you’ve ever made the noise of a drumroll with your mouth, or imitated a revving motor, you’ve essentially made the rolled R.
All you need to do now is learn how to incorporate it into words and conversations. Let’s find some practice resources, then go step-by-step to creating a roaring rolled R.
Isn’t It Trilling? The Rolled R
The rolled R is also known as a “trilled” R. But it’s not the only R, by far—the languages of the world, and even speakers of the same languages, use many others.
An array of Rs
The letter R can be pronounced in a variety of ways, used in different languages around the world.
English speakers from all over the world pronounce their Rs differently. Americans are known for something called the “retroflex approximant,” produced by touching the tongue to the middle of the palate. (You can see it happening in this video of an MRI taken while an American English speaker pronounces an R.)
This video from the English Language Club explains the mechanics of how many standard English-language Rs are made.
froehlichDeutsch offers this step-by-step method for pronouncing the uvular/guttural R used in both German and French. (If your German is a little rusty, there’s an option for English-language captions to help you through.)
Finally, we come to the alveolar trill. It’s also called “trilled” or “rolling”/“rolled” R, and it’s found in multiple languages.
The sound heard ’round the world
The rolled R is used in Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Arabic and (sometimes) Portuguese. It’s also part of Hindi and Tagalog.
That rolled R not only sounds pretty nifty, but it can make a difference in meaning when you’re speaking one of these languages. For example, in Spanish, it’s the difference between pero (but) and perro (dog).
Just Roll with It: The Ultimate Guide for How to Roll Your Rs
Finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Here’s a three-step method to get your Rs from stalled to rolling.
Step 1: The Naming of the Parts
If you start to research how to roll your Rs, you may see a lot of technical terms bandied about:
- Hard palate
- Alveolar ridge
- Velum (soft palate)
- Apical consonant
A few of these terms are truly helpful for getting you rolling.
To produce a rolled R, you’ll basically want to position the tip of your tongue on the alveolar ridge, where it needs to vibrate.
The alveolar ridge arches up from your teeth; your skin will feel a little bumpy. (When you’ve reached the smooth part of your hard palate, you’ve moved your tongue back too far. You’d also produce a choking, hissing sound if you tried pushing air over your tongue when it’s touching your hard palate too far back.)
The rolled R is an “apical consonant,” meaning that the tip of the tongue blocks the air flow.
But don’t get yourself in a pickle (see what I did there?) worrying about the technical names too much. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is get a mental picture of how everything works together.
In about two minutes’ time, this video is a crash course in the parts of the mouth, head and neck we use to speak. It shows clear illustrations, glosses the technical terms with plain language and provides plenty of examples of each type of sound. While it doesn’t explain the rolled R, it will give you a good grounding in the terminology.
This animated presentation from Glossika Phonics can help you visualize how to position your tongue properly to produce the rolled R.
Step 2: Get into Position
To get your tongue into the proper position, you can start by pronouncing an English word like “dirt” or “dirk.”
Once you’ve said the word a few times, begin again—only stop as soon as you’ve pronounced the D. Your tongue will be where it needs to be to pronounce the rolled R.
Your mouth should be slightly open, with your jaw relaxed.
Step 3: Relax and Roll!
Once your tongue is in place, with the tip pressed against the alveolar ridge, try repeatedly stammering the D sound (“duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh”). This will get your tongue relaxed, in the right place and in motion.
Next, take a breath, hold it for a few seconds, then stammer the D sound again as you forcefully expel your breath in a whoosh! of air against your relaxed tongue. Keep your tongue loose as you use your diaphragm to keep pushing air through your mouth, against your tongue.
Your tongue should start to roll (or make a trilling sound). Sustain the trill or roll for several seconds. (If you’ve ever taken voice lessons or sung in a choir, you’re probably familiar with breathing from your diaphragm as you sing.)
At this point, you should be producing a “motor” or breathy “purring” sound, which is a voiceless sound. (In other words, you’re not speaking or making any sound with your vocal folds/cords while you do it. You’re just letting the air rush out of your mouth, as if you were whispering.)
The trick is to start making noise with your vocal cords as you’re “purring,” resulting in a voiced—and rolled—R.
Rolling your Rs should produce a bit of a tickling sensation in your tongue and on your alveolar ridge.
Can’t get relaxed enough to roll? Daria of Real Russian Club offers many additional tips, including adding motion to your initial stuttering with a cotton swab, plus several tongue stretching and tongue relaxation exercises.
This video from Linguisticator offers another perspective: Think of your tongue as “a flag flapping in the wind” while you practice the rolled R. Position your tongue correctly in your mouth, let the air flow and let your tongue ride the wind (much like the reed of a woodwind instrument, like a clarinet).
Alternate Method: From Raspberry to Rolled R
If the above step-by-step method fails to trill you, you may need to get childish—or, if you’re a Mel Brooks fan, think of the “There’s only one man who would dare give me the raspberry” scene from “Spaceballs.”
Most of us, at one point in our childhood, probably gave other children the “raspberry.” (If we were really cheeky, we may have even done it to an adult!) As you can see, even the very young can make the “raspberry” noise.
If you can give someone the raspberry, you can roll your Rs. The trick is to reverse engineer the process: Start out by making raspberries with your mouth. Your tongue will be vibrating between your upper and lower lips.
While you keep your tongue vibrating, try retracting it into your mouth suddenly, until the vibrating tip of your tongue hits the roof of your mouth, just behind your teeth. Now, just add some voice to it. Voilà!
A word to the wise: Practice this somewhere by yourself. It can get slightly… messy when you quickly pull your raspberry-blowing tongue into your mouth.
Get on a Roll: Practice the Rolled R
Once you’ve gotten the hang of the rolled R, the only way to master it and use it effortlessly in foreign conversations is to practice, practice, practice!
Watch, listen and learn
To see the rolled R in action and watch it being pronounced many times, videos are a great tool. Newscasts and interview programs, such as those found in FluentU’s curated library of authentic videos, can help you see how the rolled R is pronounced.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. Hearing natives from countries such as Spain, Italy and Russia use the rolled R in real-life situations will help you master the sound.
Twist your tongue to get it rolling
Tongue twisters are a great way to limber up your tongue, which is key for producing a good rolled R.
Here are a few tongue twisters from various languages:
This collection of Spanish tongue twisters will help your pronunciation in many areas. This old chestnut is plentiful with rolled double Rs:
Erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre barril. Rápido corren los carros, sobre los rieles del ferrocarril. (R with R cigar, R with R barrel. Quickly run the carriages on the rails of the railway.)
Like the lyrics of a folk song, the words of tongue twisters can get changed over time, with oral repetition. Here are more variations on the ferrocarril tongue twister, presented on video.
The story of the tres tristes tigres (three sad tigers) is another tale that can help you get your Rs rolling.
The tigers roar into this Italian tongue-twister video, along with several other ways to practice your rolled Rs.
The first two tongue twisters in the video are particularly good for rolled R practice. The transcription for all the tongue twisters is displayed below the video.
Król Karol kupił królowej Karolinie korale koloru koralowego. (King Karol bought a coral colored necklace for queen Karoline.)
W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie a Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie że chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie. (In [the town of] Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reed, for which Szczebrzeszyn is famous.)
In this video from Antonia Romaker, captioned with both the original Russian and an English translation, you’ll not only practice a trio of great Russian rolled R tongue twisters, you’ll get some advice from a native speaker on how not to confuse the rolled R with similar sounds.
For students of other languages, Robert Beard’s alphaDictionary site boasts an impressive list of tongue twisters in over two dozen languages.
Drumroll, please! You’ve done it! You can roll your Rs. Remember: It’s not just the cat’s meow… it’s child’s play!
Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in at least three others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles, and phonemes, Michelle is a freelance content writer and education blogger. Keep up with her latest adventures in language and learning on Twitter.
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