The Dreaded Spanish R: Is It Really That Harrrrrrd?

If you’ve ever heard a Spanish speaker saying words like guitarra or ferrocarril, you know exactly how hard their “hard Rs” can get.

Indeed, Spanish R is one of the most dreaded letters in the Spanish alphabet, next with J and the elusive (that is… perpetually silent) H. The fact that Spanish R is especially difficult for English learners, of course, shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering how weak English R is —IF it is pronounced at all!

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Mastering this troublemaker may seem impossible at first, but it’s not. And the great, grrreat news is that once you conquer this tiny Spanish letter, you’ll be able to say it in other languages like Italian, Swedish, Polish or Czech!

So, without further ado, let’s delve into our step-by-step guide to master the dreaded Spanish R.

Spanish R: Weak R vs. Strong R

Oh, wait. Before we can get you to say intricate tongue twisters or make strange noises with your mouth, there is one small thing you need to know.

We’ll say it fast: there isn’t one Spanish R; there are two. But don’t worry, only one of them may give you a bit of a headache!

The weak Spanish /r/ sound is always represented a single character and can be found:

  • between vowels, as in the word cara(face)
  • after the consonants:

-b, as in abrazo (hug)

-c, as in crema (cream)

-d, as in ladrillo (brick)

-g, as in grasa (grease)

-p, as in primo (cousin)

-t, as in trenza (braid)

The strong Spanish /r/ sound can be:

  • two “r”characters in a row, when it happens between two vowels: tarro (jar), perro (dog).
  • a single “r”if the sound occurs:

-at the beginning of a word: risa (laughter), rezo (prayer)

-after n, as in the name Enrique

Normally, the soft /r/ sound is easier to pronounce for English speakers, because it’s a lot like the English "d", or like “tt” in words like “little”. In order to produce the hard version of Spanish R, however, you have to sustain the sound so that your tongue touches your palate repeatedly, resulting in a trilling sound.

Now that you know this, let us show you how you can master Spanish R in four easy steps.

 1. Understand the Technicalities

The first thing you need to do to master Spanish R is knowing what needs to happen inside your mouth when you produce this sound. So, let’s talk about phonetics for a minute. (Yes, we promise we won’t put you to sleep with complex vocabulary).

In fact, let’s start with a short exercise. Say the English word “added” with your best American accent. Good. Now say it again and pay particular attention to the position of your tongue when you say that “dd” bit.

Now let’s try to do that with a Spanish word. Say the word pero (but) making sure you are tapping your tongue against your alveolar ridge (i.e., the front part of your palate) just like you did for the word “added”. Good.

What you did just now is pronounce soft R. You touched the front part of your palate with your tongue once and you produced a single tap. That’s excellent. Now let’s try something different.

You’re going to try to say the word pero again, but this time you will try to prolong the /r/ sound for as long as you can, tapping several times in rapid succession. You see? It’s so fast that it almost feels like a vibration! Instead of saying pero, now you have just said perro (dog). Just by changing the intensity of your /r/ sound, you have produced a new word.

Not sure you got it yet? Don’t worry. We are just getting started with our tips.

2. Move Your Tongue Back!

When you pronounce Spanish R, especially a hard R, your tongue describes a curl that takes the tip of your tongue towards the roof of your mouth. So, if you’re struggling to get the right sound, the problem might be that your tongue is too far forward.

You want to sound like Sofía Vergara? Move that tongue back! Otherwise, your perro will come out sounding more like “pietho”, whatever that means. Of course, you don’t have to take our word. In language learning, a big part of the learning takes place when you experiment. So, try moving your tongue back and forth and saying words with a hard Spanish R until you hit the perfect spot!

3. Pay Attention to How Others Produce this Sound

When it comes to pronunciation, there is no secret as to how to master a sound. Though learning the phonological technicalities of sounds is a big help, in the end, the best you can do is listen and repeat, listen and repeat.

This short tutorial deals with the mechanics of how to trill your Rs, as well as information on when to use the soft or the hard versions of Spanish R. But more importantly, it allows you to listen to a native Spanish speaker say the R consonant and repeat after her until you get the sound right.

4. Practise with tongue twisters

If you want to get lots of practice, there is nothing better than a good trabalenguas (yes, that’s the Spanish word for “tongue twisters”). Lucky for you, the Internet is full of them. These are our favourite ones:

El perro cachorro de Raúl Manchorro se enreda en la ropa, se enrosca como cuerda y se enreda en la rueca de Rosa Rueda.

Camarero, desencamarónamelo.

R de guitarra, R de barril, mira qué rápido ruedan las ruedas del ferrocarril.

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Want to know what these all mean? Why don’t you ask a native speaker of Spanish? At Listen & Learn, we offer the first trial lesson with a qualified native Spanish tutor at no cost. Our teachers can give you personalised feedback and help you perfect your pronunciation! Contact us now and we’ll pair you up with a qualified tutor so you can boost your pronunciation in no time.