Spanish R for non natives

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.

The first Spanish R sound is the long, rolling, motorcycle sound. Spanish speakers call this sound erre, and hopefully by the time you’re done with this you’ll know how to pronounce that. There are plenty of tutorials out there on how to pronounce this sound. This is going to be, physically speaking, the harder one of the two for you to master if you can’t already do it. Keep plugging away at it. The important thing is that you try. And the second important thing is that you know which Spanish R goes on each given word. First I’m gonna show you how to tell that from the way a word is spelled. Then, as time goes by and you pronounce them properly and hear them over and over again, you’ll be able to tell which is which just from hearing them.

This long, rolling, motorcycle sound is the sound of the words ropa, perro and Enrique. Let’s call this sound a trilled R so that we can refer to it easily later.

The second Spanish R sound sounds a lot shorter, and – wait for it – is exactly the same sound found in the American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand pronunciations of T and D in the words meta, coda, howdy, metal/medal, butter, writer/rider.

This is the sound of gris, verde, mar, pero. Let’s call it tapped R from its technical name: alveolar tap or flap. In other words, let’s forget about the name rolled R for now. It’s not a specific name, it basically refers to any R sound different from the one found in English, and it doesn’t help in differentiating between the two different R sounds of Spanish.

Ok, now onto the important bit: when to use each R when you are reading aloud (applying these rules in reverse is how you make sure you’re correctly spelling something you heard). The first two rules are the most important, because those are the cases where mispronunciations can lead to misunderstanding.

– Whenever it’s spelled RR, it’s a trilled R: perro, carro, hierro, fierro, gorro.

– When it’s spelled R between vowels, it’s a tapped R: pero, caro, hiero, fiero, hora, ahora.

– At the beginning of a word it’s a trilled R: ropa, rato, roto, remo.

– At the end of a word it’s a tapped R: mar, par, azar, hablar, comer, vivir.

– At the end of a syllable it’s also a tapped R: verde, corto, puerto, Marcos.

– When it’s part of a consonant group at the beginning of a syllable, it’s a tapped R: prisa, brazo, tres, madre, cruz, kris, grasa, frase.

– When it begins a syllable and the previous syllable ended with a consonant, it’s a rolled R: Enrique, alrededor, Israel.

Whew! I hope that clears things up. In the near future I will add audio clips to this post, so that the pronunciation of all the examples is 100% clear.

If you happen to be into phonetics or linguistics and want a version of the information found on this post with a lot more technical meat and potatoes, articulatory descriptions, IPA and all that jazz, check out this other post. There is also this post by John Wells on articulatory aspects of the trilled R specifically.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below and an answer you shall receive! 🙂


If after getting the above under your belt, your friend is still giving you grief, but this time over your pronunciation of Spanish D, refer to this other post.


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