AKA Spanish Rs for non natives
This post is for learners, and is targeted to native English speakers. But hopefully it can also be of use to teachers hoping to explain this to their students, and to speakers of other languages as well.
I’m sure this is gonna ring a bell. You’re learning Spanish. Everybody told you it would be a breeze, what with the cognates (thank William the Conqueror for that), the similar word order (…sort of) and the general openness of the Spanish speaking peoples. Then you met Spanish pronunciation. Maybe the JA-JO-JU-JE/GE-JI/GI thing was a little hard – until you realized that you could do an English H sound and everybody understood, and that’s how Caribbean native speakers (among others) pronounce it anyway. You carried on, and then, oh dear, your Spanish speaking friend told you you had to learn to pronounce your Rs more like they did it, or else it’d be like carrying around a banner with the words SOY EXTRANJERO Y HABLO INGLÉS on it.
So you got it into your head you had to learn to “roll your Rs”, whatever that meant. You watched a bunch of Youtube videos, you asked said friend to help you, you bought a copy of Zen and the Art of Rolling your Damn Rs. People told you to “relax your tongue” (not a bad piece of advice, actually), to “say drdrdr a lot really fast”, and other such arcane formulas. Finally, thanks to, or in spite of, those recommendations, you learned how to do the long rolling motorcycle-like sound otherwise technically known as an alveolar trill.
So there you go! You know how to pronounce a Spanish R! Or do you? You’re still having trouble getting people to know whether you just said “dog” (perro) or “but” (pero), and it’s so confusing maybe you don’t even know for sure which spelling corresponds to which. You don’t know how long your “roll” ought to go on for on any given word. And your friend is still telling you something isn’t working.
This is where you need to stop, take a breather, and actually analyze the situation. Here’s the rub: there are actually two different R sounds in Spanish. Here’s the good news: one of them is going to be relatively easy for you to pronounce right off the bat, especially if you speak American, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand English.