Teva-deva, teva-deva, teva-deva, teva-deva”
I am sitting in my room repeating these nonsense words in quick succession.
“I edited it. I edited it. I edited it. I edited it.”
Along with that sentence.
Sadly, that is the only sound I can produce.
I am trying to learn how to trill my r’s.
The trilled “r” sound is pertinent to properly spoken Spanish. That doesn’t mean it comes naturally to every Spanish speaker on the planet. It is, in fact, the last sound that Spanish-speaking children can successfully produce. Apparently, some adults never master the trilled “r”. They are labeled as having an official articulation disorder. I am afraid that I may be of that number.
As I’ve mentioned before, growing up in Texas means that you are exposed to many nuances of Spanish language and culture when you are young. In grade school, kids would run around the playground rolling their r’s extravagantly in exotic words such as “maracas” or “rojo”. Try as I might, I could never join in. “It’s easy!” they’d say. It was impossible.
While my classmates were happily trilling away like helicopters or purring cats, I was tackling a speech impediment. Each week, I would visit the school’s speech therapist, who helped me learn how to pronounce “th”, “ch”, “sh”, and “j”. It took me years of practice, and I still have trouble pronouncing these sounds, especially when I am tired. If I am not careful, I can easily slip into a lisp (not that this would be a problem in Spain). I wonder if my inability to pronounce these sounds when I was younger, and my inability to roll my r’s now, are one in the same problem.
A few days ago, my host father, Juan, told me I needed to practice trilling my r’s. He taught me this tongue-twister, which Spanish children use to practice their r sounds:
El perro de san Roque no tiene rabo,
porque Ramón Ramirez se lo ha robado.
In English, it means:
The dog of san Roque has no tail,
because Ramón Ramirez stole it.
The excess of r sounds in this sentence is meant to help one learn how to place the trilled r in everyday speech.
Yesterday in class, my professors taught us this same sentence. They also stressed the importance of learning how to properly place the trilled r. Apparently, there are only two times when one trills the r. Either when:
1) It is the first letter, like in Roque or rabo
2) There is a double r in the middle of a word, like in guitarra or churro
It is a good idea to repeat tricky sentences like El perro de san Roque until you are use to using the trilled r whenever you speak. That is, if you can trill your r’s in the first place.
Welcome to rudimentary Spanish pronunciation 101, where we learn to roll our r’s.
As I’ve said, I can’t roll an r to save my life. Yesterday, when my classmates, once again, were trilling away with ease, I tried to imitate them. It didn’t go very well. While we were walking down the street after class, my friends looked on with worried glances as I continued to try to make the appropriate sound
“I don’t know how to describe how to do it,” they said. In their attempts to help, they looked at me with intent faces and pointed at their mouths while they trilled. I tried to do the same, but ended up just blowing raspberries or hissing. I think a few Spaniards on the street were a bit worried at that point, too.
This morning, over café con leche, I told my host mother, Maria, that I was having trouble pronouncing my r’s correctly. She too said that she wasn’t sure how to describe how to do it, and also pointed at her mouth while she demonstrated how to trill: “perro”. In turn, I demonstrated my inaptitude at the process.
She told me that it was alright, a lot of Spanish-speaking children take years to perfect the “r”. I asked her if there are any adults that can’t trill their r’s.
“Some,” she said, “I know some people who can’t. But there aren’t many, because children learn when they are young”.
“Is it a problem?” I asked her.
“A little bit, because there is a difference between pero and perro, you see, but usually they can be understood”.
I told her I would be practicing my pronunciation, so if she heard me making strange noises around the house, that would be the reason why.
So, I went to my trusty advisor, the internet, and googled “how to roll your r’s”.
The first thing the websites tell you to do is to relax your tongue. Hence, the nonsense words I mentioned earlier. Basically, repeat anything that makes you tap the tip of your tongue against the space between your two front teeth and the roof of your mouth. This should loosen up the muscles in your tongue necessary for trilling and position your tongue in the right spot at the same time.
Once your tongue is nice and loose, float the tip of your tongue in the space between your two front teeth and the roof of your mouth. Apparently, this is called the alveolar ridge, for those who want to know. Next, attempt to pronounce a “dr” or “tr” sound with your tongue in this position. The added “d” or “t” should help, because English speakers naturally pronounce d’s and t’s with their tongues in the appropriate position for trilled r’s. Thus, the “d” and “t” sounds make it easier to roll onto the r sound.
I’ve been practicing all morning, and I’ve gotten it so I can roll onto the “r” from the “d” or “t”, but only for a moment before I lose it and have to repeat my tongue twisters again.
Maria comes to my door and checks on my progress. I try to demonstrate my limited newfound ability, but I don’t think she can tell the difference. We agree that I need more practice.
There is a rumor that some people simply can’t roll their r’s because of a genetic defect. I’ve read that if you can’t fold your tongue vertically, this is a sign that you will never be able to trill. Apparently Spanish-speakers also recognize a defect called Ankyloglossia, or “Tounge-tie”, which means that frenulum (the tissue that connects your tongue to base of your mouth) is too short. If you have “tongue-tie”, you cannot roll your r’s. People with “tongue-tie” have this defect surgically corrected as children. I don’t know if I have any of these problems (and I am not going under the knife in order to roll my r’s anytime soon), but maybe I am one of those who simply can’t trill.
Then again, I’ve also heard that the “genetic defect” rumor is complete nonsense as well. Here’s hoping.
Sites to help you learn how to pronounce the trilled r sound:
Tongue twister: http://www.tebytib.com/gest_web/proto_Seccion.pl?rfID=7&arefid=1647
A step-by-step guide: http://www.spanish-only.com/2008/03/how-to-roll-your-r/
More methods: http://www.wikihow.com/Roll-Your-%22R%22s
A linguist’s advice: http://linguistlist.org/issues/12/12-57.html
How to roll your R’s: http://wander-argentina.org/2011/06/how-to-roll-your-rs/
What if you can’t trill?: http://wander-argentina.org/2011/07/what-if-you-cant-trill-your-r/
— Emily Bowman, DUSA Student Blogger