Master the Spanish ‘r’ Sound
Once and For All!
In today’s lesson, you will learn:
- What the ‘r’ sound in Spanish really is and what it is not.
- How to learn the Alveolar tap if you can’t already do it.
- How to train your tap pronunciation in every possible Spanish situation.
- How to strengthen the alveolar trill.
What Is The ‘r’ Sound In Spanish (and What Is it Not?)
After this introduction section, I will never use the term “Spanish r” again because it is misleading in the following ways:
- There are actually TWO distinct sounds in Spanish that people refer to as “The Spanish r”
- Referring to it as an ‘r’ may make people think that it has some relationship to the ‘r’ sounds of other languages like English and French, but these sounds are completely different.
Instead of using this confusing term, we will henceforth refer to these two sounds as The Alveolar Tap and The Alveolar Trill. We will also use the following symbols to refer to each sound in Spanish writing:
- /&/ – The Alveolar Tap
- /%/ – The Alveolar Trill
In the recording below, I first articulate the alveolar tap between each vowel – /&/, then I do the same for the alveolar trill – /%/.
a&a i&i u&u e&e o&o | a%a i%i u%u e%e o%o
The Alveolar Tap /&/ is the most important Spanish sound for you to train and master because:
- It is the most challenging sound for Spanish learners to make at high speed.
- It is one of the most common sounds in Spanish.
Because it is so challenging yet so common in Spanish, the Alveolar tap is usually the first sound to give you away as a foreigner.
The Most important thing for you NOT to do with the Alveolar Tap!
No matter what, do NOT ever replace the alveolar tap sound with an ‘English r’ sound…EVER!
Here’s what that sounds like:
There are two reasons why you might do this:
- The English ‘r’ serves the same function in English as the alveolar tap /&/ does in Spanish, so your ears and mouth are already predisposed to this sound.
- Both sounds are written with the letter ‘r’, and as an English speaker you strongly associate the ‘English r’ sound to the ‘r’ script.
Whatever the reason for committing this error, you must really make the effort to NOT create this sound in Spanish EVER, because the English r sound is so physically different in its articulation from the Alveolar tap that it will ruin your Spanish mouth.
Persist in saying the English ‘r’ in your Spanish, and you will NEVER achieve Spanish Flow.
How to Train the Spanish Alveolar Tap
The first step to mastering the Alveolar Tap in Spanish is to understand it on a physical level.
- The place of articulation is the alveolar ridge – which is the point where your upper teeth enter your gums
- Them manner of articulation is tapped – meaning you are quickly flicking the tip of your tongue against the alveolar ridge.
The video below shows what the mouth looks like when you make the alveolar tap.
The Alveolar “Flap” of English
A sound very similar to the Spanish Alveolar Tap exists in English – The Alveolar Flap. This is actually a very common sound in English. We actually replace the /t/ and /d/ sounds with this sound when we talk fast.
In the recording below, I say the phrase “Got to eat a matador” two times. The first time I say it slowly and enunciated, the second time I say it quickly and naturally.
In the second version, I didn’t have time to fully articulate the /t/ and /d/ sounds, so instead I just flicked my tongue for these sounds and got:ga&a ea&a ma&a&orIf you can’t make the Alveolar Tap in Spanish, Replace it with This Sound.
If You Can’t Make the Alveolar Tap Sound, Replace it With a “Fast /d/” Sound,
The “matador” example demonstrates the important relationship between the alveolar tap /&/ and the alveolar stop consonants /t/ and /d/.
Let’s review the place and manner of articulation for these /t/ and /d/ sounds:
- The Place of Articulation is the alveolar ridge (same as the alveolar tap.)
- The Manner of Articulation is “stop,” meaning air is built up behind the tongue and released in a burst.
For air to build up behind the /d/ sound, you need to leave your tongue in position for at least a fraction of a second. If you remove your tongue too quickly, then the air won’t build up and you won’t get the /d/ sound. Instead, you will get the alveolar tap /&/ sound.
In other words, the alveolar tap is just a really fast /d/ sound.
In the recording below, I demonstrate this by repeating the syllable “da” several times slowly, then gradually building speed. By the end of the recording, my tongue is moving too fast to make the /d/ sound, so I am effectively saying “&a”.
If you can’t yet make the Alveolar Tap sound in Spanish, replace it with your fastest /d/. In the recording below, I demonstrate how to do this by saying some Spanish words with a fast /d/ instead of /&/.
- quiero (quiedo)
- eres (edes)
- estar (estad)
- arte (adte)
- ahora (ahoda)
If you replace your alveolar taps with fast /d/ sounds, your mouth and ear will eventually fall into place and start creating the alveolar tap naturally.
In my premium course – The Flow of Spanish – you use song lyrics to train your perception and pronunciation of Spanish sounds, then you submit recordings to me for precise feedback on your pronunciation.
In the video below, I demonstrate the progress of one student who started off saying the English ‘r’, then switched to the fast /d/ sound on my advice, then finally got the alveolar tap after a few days of practice:
Make the switch now from ‘English r’ to fast /d/ and I guarantee that you will see the same results.
Training the Alveolar Tap in Every Situation
The hardest part about the Alveolar Tap is that you need to pronounce it quickly all the time.
As the most common Spanish consonant sound, the Spanish Alveolar tap will come up in many different situations, and some situations are more challenging than others. Whenever you say a Spanish word or phrase that contains this sound and you find yourself twisting up your tongue, try to repeat it slowly as many times as it takes to get it right, then build the speed.
In The Flow of Spanish – I have a “Tap Bootcamp” that helps you train this sound in every possible situation. For now, I will just quickly review each situation and give you audio examples to practice along with.
The Spanish Alveolar Tap in Between Two Spanish Vowels
This is easiest situation to start off with. In the recording below, I articulate the alveolar tap in between each of the 5 vowels, then I say some some word examples of the same situation.
The Spanish Alveolar Tap at End of a Spanish Syllable
Next, I do the same thing with the Spanish Alveolar tap occurring at the end of a syllable.
Most important thing here is that you don’t “r-color” the vowel like you do in the English words “car” and “hair”. The Audio below gives an example of this.
The Spanish Alveolar Tap at the Beginning of a Spanish Syllable
This can be really tricky for Spanish learners, since it requires a careful coordination of your breath at the beginning of the word.
The Spanish Alveolar Tap in Combination with Other Spanish Consonants
This is where things get really tricky. A “consonant cluster” is when you make two or more consonant sounds with no vowel in between them. This requires a lot more tongue dexterity to pull off, and some clusters are more difficult than others.
In the recordings below, I go over a few – see which ones you can mimic:
Trickier Tap Combos:
Difficult Tap Combos:
What Exactly is a Spanish Trill?
A lot of emphasis is placed on the “trill” sound in Spanish. This is because it is a very “flashy” sound. Indeed, it’s precisely this sound that Spanish sports commentators exaggerate in “futból” games:
But here’s the truth about the trill – The Spanish Alveolar Trill is no where near as important as the Spanish alveolar tap. Indeed, the Spanish alveolar tap is the most common consonant sound in Spanish speech, while the Spanish alveolar trill is the least common consonant sound in Spanish.
In fact, you can get away with replacing the trill sound with a tap.
It’s not ideal, but people will understand you no problem. Also, if you are currently unable to create either sound, the trill probably won’t come to you until you have built up your tongue dexterity with the alveolar tap.
All this to say that you should focus first on mastering the Spanish alveolar tap, then worry about mastering the Spanish alveolar trill only after.
Now that that’s out the way, let’s take a closer look at this sound.
The Difference Between the Spanish Alveolar Tap and the Spanish Alveolar Trill
Once again, the first step to mastering the alveolar trill sound is to understand it on the physical level.
The Tap and Trill share the same place of of articulation (The Alveolar Ridge). What differentiates the two sounds is their Manner of Articulation.
- For the Spanish Alveolar Tap, you are contracting your tongue muscles to flick the tip of your tongue against the alveolar ridge.
- For the Spanish Alveolar trill, you are relaxing your tongue muscles and directing air over the top of the tongue in a way that causes the tip to vibrate rapidly on its own.
When you hear how involved the trill is, you may want to move your tongue in all sorts of funky ways, but the key to articulating the Spanish Alveolar Trill is muscle relaxation.
In the videos below, I give you a closeup of my mouth articulating the two sounds (please excuse my breath). Notice how the Flap is a single movement while the trill is a fast vibration.
Honestly, there is not much else I can tell you about this sound to help you learn it. All you can do is keep fumbling around with your mouth until you get it.
Growing up, I was completely incapable of making this sound. It used to frustrate me because the sound came naturally to my mom and older brother, and they would always tease me with it.
It wasn’t until I was 20 years old – one year after I had already achieved conversational fluency in Spanish – that I was finally able to get it.
One day, while moving boxes in the warehouse of a furniture store I worked at, I was singing a Spanish song. Then all of a sudden, my tongue just started to vibrate on its own. After I felt it, I was able to reproduce it on command. I was so excited that I dropped the box I was carrying, jumped up victoriously into the sky, and clicked my heels together twice in glee!
The reason why I was finally able to achieve this breakthrough is because I had lived in Mexico for a few months and was speaking Spanish all the time. As a result, my tongue loosened up from English and eventually I was ready to make it.
So even though I struggled with this sound for most of my life, through practice I can now trill stronger than anyone I know:
So there’s no reason to get frustrated. The Spanish Alveolar Trill, as well as any other Spanish sound, will eventually come to you as long as you practice.
The Voiceless Alveolar Trill vs. The Voiced Alveolar Trill
A common problem I see with my Flow of Spanish students is that they can make a voiceless trill but not a voiced trill.
- “Voiced” means that your vocal cords are vibrating during the articulation of the sound.
- “Voiceless” means that your vocal cords are NOT vibrating and you are just blowing air.
In the recording below, I demonstrate the difference!
What you want to do in Spanish is a VOICED alveolar trill. Especially if you just learned how to do a trill, it can be a bit challenging to coordinate this tongue vibration with the activation of your vocal cords.
If you struggle to add voice, start by saying a neutral “uh” vowel, then try to add the trill on top without breaking the vocal vibration:
Try these drills out a few times and you will start to develop a better awareness of what goes on in your mouth when you make these sounds.
The Spanish Alveolar Tap/Trill Conclusion
Don’t get frustrated if you struggle with any of the sounds or situation on this page. Remember, speech is a motor skill that we’ve all trained in our first languages with tens of thousands of hours of practice. There’s no way you’ll be able to get this on your first try.
If you have any questions about anything, be sure to ask them in the comments below. Then stay tuned for the next lesson in this mini-course: The Twin Tweaks for Mastering the Spanish Accent.
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