How to roll your rs in Italian (works for Spanish too)

24th August 2017

Can you roll your Rs? Have a go now. Go on, no one’s listening. If you made a lovely rrrrrr sound, you can stop reading and go back to Facebook. On the other hand, if you’re anything like me when I started learning Spanish, you may have blown a raspberry, or made a noise that sounds like a cross between Darth Vader and a flushing a toilet. If this is you, and you’d like to learn how to roll your Rs, keep reading. In this post, you’ll learn:
  • Why you can probably learn how to roll your Rs, even if you think you can’t.
  • A simple method to train yourself to make the rolling R sound (that actually works).
  • A quick trick you can use right now to make your R sound more Spanish or Italian, even if you can’t roll your Rs yet.

Why can’t I roll my Rs?

The Italians and Spanish make it look easy, but the rolling R sound is actually pretty complex. Also known as the trilled R, the sound is made by blowing air between the top of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. With the right tongue position, muscle tension and air pressure, this air causes the tip of your tongue to vibrate, creating a lovely rrrrrrrrrrr sound. To get it right, you need to think about the following things:
  • Position: the tongue should rest on the little ridge behind your teeth (roughly in the same place as when you make the t sound).
  • Tension: the tongue should be relaxed enough that it can move up and down freely in the stream of air, but not so loose that the air passes straight over.
  • Air pressure: if you breathe too softly, your tongue won’t vibrate, but if you breathe too hard, your tongue won’t stay in the right position.
The rolling R sound requires you to coordinate your mouth muscles in a way that’s totally different from English (with the exception of some accents, like Scottish, which use the rolling R in words like grrreat). If you don’t have this sound in your first language, learning to coordinate your muscles in this way can feel almost impossible.

Is the ability to roll your Rs genetic?

I always envied the kids in my Spanish class at school who could elegantly roll their Rs. Whenever I tried, I ended up with my face ended up covered in slobber. As my Spanish teacher (erroneously) explained that the rolling R is something you’re either born with or you’re not, I accepted the idea that I was not one of the lucky ones and decided to save myself the embarrassment of trying. But 10 years later, when I was learning Italian in Italy, I found myself struggling with the rolling R again. I wanted a good Italian accent so I could blend in with the locals, but when you can’t roll your Rs, it immediately singles you out as having quite a strong foreign accent. I’d always assumed that my problem was physiological - maybe something about the shape of my tongue meant I couldn’t do it - so I resigned myself to the fact that I would always have a crappy R in languages like Italian and Spanish.

Can I train myself to roll my Rs?

Luckily, a year or so later I met an Italian teacher at the school where I was working, who insisted that most people can train themselves to make the rolling R sound. This was something I didn’t want to hear at the time because it felt like she was implying that I hadn’t tried hard enough. Didn’t she know that my problem was physiological?! No amount of practise would change the shape of my tongue! I decided to practise the rolling R anyway, mostly to prove her wrong, so she’d stop being so smug around poor foreigners like me who couldn’t do it. I watched tutorials on the internet and started practising everywhere: waiting for my computer to load, washing the dishes, in the shower… I didn’t expect it to work. But it did. After a few days, I could feel my tongue getting closer to the rolled R. After a few weeks, I could do the Italian R quite well. I went from being irritated at the Italian teacher to wanting to hug her. I could finally roll my Rs!

Why you can probably roll your Rs too

There was nothing wrong with my tongue, I just needed to retrain my mouth and tongue muscles so they could adapt to a new, complex sound. You've had decades to fine tune your mouth muscles to make sounds in your first language. Training the muscles to make new sounds takes perseverance (probably way more than you think), so it’s easy to assume there must be some physiological reason why you can’t do it. But in countries where Spanish or Italian is spoken, almost everyone can make the rolling R sound. Only a small percentage of people can’t do it because of physiological problems. The majority of us would've learnt just fine if we'd grown up speaking a language with the rolling r. The good news: this means that with the right techniques and a good dose of perseverance, you can probably learn how to roll your Rs. This tutorial will show you how.

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