Few things give native English speakers more trouble than the dreaded rolled R. What's worse, many popular global languages (Spanish, Italian, Thai, Hindi, Arabic, etc.) use a rolled R or similar tonal pattern. If you want clear, effective communication in these languages, you'll need to master the skill of how to roll your R's.
Learning how to roll your r's begins by moving the tip of your tongue towards the alveolar Ridge, relaxing it a little, and then practising regularly. If you're having trouble, you can try cupping your tongue a little too!
To be perfectly honest, it's also somewhat of a language flex to have a good rolled R as a native English speaker!
Trying and failing to produce this sound can feel humiliating, especially at the beginning. Many choose to shrug their shoulders after a few half-hearted attempts and settle with something along the lines of ‘I guess I just can't do it.'
The truth: a rolled R, while challenging at first, is a learned skill that you can work on perfecting over time. Like any skill, with good instruction and practice, you too can master rolling your R's!
Where to Put that Pesky Tongue
Without taking you too far into the linguistic weeds, we make a typical English R sound by placing the tip of our tongue in the middle of the roof of our mouth.
Try saying “How aRe you?” but elongate that middle R. Unless you speak with a thick brogue, you should find your tongue near the centre of your hard palate. Try the same with ‘Bread' or ‘Weird.'
When you try to roll your r's, you will need to move your tongue forward slightly, bringing it to a spot known as the alveolar ridge.
Since that's probably a foreign term, it's perhaps easier to describe it this way: take your tongue and travel roughly 1.5 cm from the tip of your top front teeth back along the roof of your mouth. Move a little past your gums, and you'll find a slight horizontal bump. That's your alveolar ridge!
Next up, trilling.
Take a Deep Breath and… Relax!
A trilled R (the linguistic name for this) requires the tip of the tongue to be relaxed. Something we English-speakers are not used to doing when making an R sound.
Also, calling it a ‘Rolled' R misleads you in the first place. There isn't much rolling involved, and naming it such tricks many when they try at first. I prefer to think of it as a ‘Fluttering R,' which more accurately describes what my tongue is doing.
To get some practice with relaxing your tongue, blow some raspberries.
That's right, stick out your tongue and make rude noises to your heart's content! (It might not be a bad plan to wait until you're alone for this part.)
When you've had your fun, bring your relaxed tongue back into your mouth to the alveolar ridge. Now, you can start trying for that R sound. It'll probably take a bunch of attempts, so don't feel discouraged if it doesn't happen on your first attempt.
The key is to push air past your tongue at a constant rate while allowing it to flutter ever so slightly against that alveolar ridge. This takes quite a bit of fine-tuning at first. Once you find it, though, try to repeat it as often as you can!
One trick that helps many first-time-trillers struggling with how to roll their R's is to think of cupping the tongue slightly instead of pointing it. This helps guide the air to the right place and gets the tongue in the appropriate position.
If you're struggling to make headway, there are some great Youtube videos out there that guide you through various techniques. Check this one out:
Practise Makes Perfect!
Like most good things, the key is practising and not getting discouraged. It may not come quickly at first, but even practising for five minutes here and there will give most people significant results within a day or two.
Once you've started to make some progress, why not make a game of it? See how long you can keep the trill going! Time yourself and try to set a new record each time.
If you're still struggling to find the trill, consider booking a lesson on italki (read our full review of italki here). While it may seem silly at first, practising this skill with a native speaker can make all the difference.
Speaking of which, once you've got your R's rolling, consider finding a language exchange partner on a service like Tandem. Who knows, you may just be able to help them perfect their English R while you work on your trill!
Rock and Roll (Your R's) ?
Once you understand the basics of the technique and have found good ways to practice it, you might consider learning a few more of the sounds in the R family. German and French R's tend to come from the back of the throat, while Russian ones often involve trilling or tapping the tongue slightly further back from the alveolar ridge. Explore!
In addition, once you've learned to trill your R's, it's straightforward to discover the alveolar tap–it's just a single trill. Tapped R's are handy in many other languages.
You might even consider trying to teach a friend or two how to roll their R's. While that may sound a little crazy, it can be a hilarious activity, especially in a group. If nothing else, you'll get even better at doing your Trills for yourself!
Lastly, now that you've mastered the dreaded Rolled R, consider heading over to our Bite Size Languages Courses, where we teach both Spanish and Italian! You can put your new trilling skills to use immediately and start building towards Actual Fluency today.
Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.
Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.