That pesky alveolar trill
January 7, 2009 1:47 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to learn how to do the alveolar trill / rolled 'R'

I'm a native English speaker who has moved to Norway. My inability to produce one of the key sounds of the Norwegian language, the rolled r, is at least comic and at worst renders a percentage of what I try to say incomprehensible to sensitive ears.

I find that Norwegians are ...getting there, but are not as sympathetic to foreigners speaking Norwegian as English or American speakers are of people who have English as a second-language. Norwegians are not as used to hearing Norwegian imperfectly reproduced and are fairly tolerant of it whilst at the same time impressed that one has made the effort.

I've got a couple of problems I'm aware of within the language which I can work on alone, but one thing I'm painfully aware of is my inability to roll my rs. It just doesn't seem to be in my mouth's repertoire! Those who can do this just say "but come on, just do this: rrrrrrrrr!!".

Does anyone know how I can begin to get those rs rolled? Any non-roller want to stop by and say it can be done?
posted by dance to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I had to do this when I was an English speaker learning Spanish. It can be done, and all you really need to do is go somewhere away from other people and make lots of funny noises. Do not do this if you're in a cubicle at work!
1. Relax your tongue. No, relax more. Imagine you're a Labrador puppy on a hot day.
2. Your mouth and teeth should be slightly open.
3. Exhale over your tongue. Hrrrr.
4. Now try it with a consonant. Brrr. Prrr. Trrr.
I don't know the Norwegian for it, so: ¡buena suerte!
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:06 PM on January 7, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm not a non-roller, as I'm Portuguese, but the easiest way I can describe the articulation of the movement is that it is like... gargling. Only without any liquid in your mouth, and obviously not throwing your head back. Can you do that?
posted by neblina_matinal at 2:08 PM on January 7, 2009

Sorry, you clearly said alveolar "r", and I gave you a [R]. The r is harder to explain... It's a matter of getting the tip of your tongue vibrating... I can imagine it's hard for anyone not born into it. What Fiasco da Gama (yeah, I get your punsy name) suggests is worth a try, if it makes sense to you.
posted by neblina_matinal at 2:12 PM on January 7, 2009

I was never able to do it when I learned Italian, but my linguist friend made a suggestion that helped a lot:

Try making the "tt" sound from "butter." Now loosen your tongue. Move it slightly back towards "R" (hopefully, that'll make sense to you.)

It's not quite the proper rolled r, but it sounds quite close.
posted by JMOZ at 2:46 PM on January 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

Do remember learning how to whistle?* It probably took a while to figure out the exact lip shape, air flow, and tongue position to achieve that desired sound. This rolled r is not that different in difficulty or method of acquisition (do not get confused here - the actual physical articulation of whistling and trill-making are quite different. This is just an analogy). Alveolar trills are hard if you didn't spend your early years working on them. Like whistling, or a coordinated exercise activity, such as a squat, swimming stroke, or even wiggling your ears.

*At the age of thirty now, I finally succeeded in learning how to whistle. It took about six months. I would spontaneously practice in the car, at home, wherever. I'm a linguist, so you'd think I'd have some advantage. But it's really about putting the time in and gaining the muscle memory for that particular articulation. You can do it, you just got to practice, practice, practice!

People above have given you some good suggestions about things to try while practicing.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:16 PM on January 7, 2009

Yes it's possible. I could never roll my r's but took Spanish in high school and was dying to be able to do it! So I sat and practiced and practiced and practiced all day for weeks. You just have to push your tongue to the front/top of your mouth and try to get the very beginning of the r going and keep doing that over and over, eventually you will get more and more of the roll out until one day you get a full roll!
posted by radioamy at 3:16 PM on January 7, 2009

yes, it's possible to learn. I couldn't do it in HS spanish class, but later developed the ability. (a cat taught me, I swear)

let yourself be over-exaggerated when you practice it. you can worry about subtlety once you've figured out the basics. talk to cats....good luck!
posted by supermedusa at 3:22 PM on January 7, 2009

To me, the production of the rolled R is very similar to making the D sound. Like it's in between R and D. I think a good approximation would be to switch D for R in words, so, in English, try saying Amedican instead of American, addest instead of arrest. If you try to keep the vowel sounds like you were going to say R but then say D instead, you are getting close to the rolled R (at least I am when I do this). Just make it a very soft D sound, like you're just kind of flapping the tip of your tongue against that spot on the upper roof of your mouth. In some languages this is how they say R, it's just a little flap of the tongue instead of the full trill (I think in Spanish?).

When you are making a D sound, right before you expel air, and your tongue is touching the top of your mouth, if you lower the very tip of your tongue just the teensiest bit, that small opening between your tongue and the roof of your mouth is where the rolling sound happens. All the edges of your tongue have to be touching the roof of your mouth, but there's a cup of air in the middle. The tip of your tongue especially has to be touching -- I can roll my R with the tip of my tongue touching pretty much anywhere on the roof of my mouth (well not anywhere -- anywhere that the tip of your tongue would reasonably be when making a D sound) as long as it's not pressed against your actual teeth, it has to be touching skin or it won't work (actually I just did it against my teeth, but that's much harder and it kind of gave me a headache). Then just try lightly expelling air over the very tip.

Sorry to ramble -- I'm just trying to describe what's going on in my mouth when I make the R.

And it's probably possible -- my niece, before she could speak, used to just randomly walk around the house making a rolled R sound, just RRRRRRRRR constantly, and she grew up in an English-speaking household, no Spanish-speakers or anything.
posted by thebazilist at 3:53 PM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Okay reading the other comments over again, the "light flapping D" I was talking about is exactly like the "tt" in "butter" that JMOZ already mentioned. Unless you're from one of those regions or countries where they actually pronounce them as full Ts, in which case I don't know what to tell you!
posted by thebazilist at 3:56 PM on January 7, 2009

It is entirely possible that it's just "not in your mouth's repertoire". I have a tight lingual frenulum, and I literally can't produce alveolar trills. This isn't to suggest that you stop trying to learn how, but if you really can't, there may be a physiological reason.
posted by arianell at 4:03 PM on January 7, 2009

I took years of norwegian and finally got the rolled R after i stopped. I thought I would never get it though.

i like the first reply and suggestion. basically my strategy was to spend a good part of an hour a day (i was in a civics class at the time and used that hour) consistantly huffing with the air rolling over my tongue and trying to find the ballance between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. at first (probably a month or so in) i could get a sort of one click, then two, etc...

however to tell you the truth I still cant make the exact sound i was trying to get at in norwegian at the time, but i can roll my rs in a way that helps me in spanish. it takes a lot of practice to get it down. maybe pick a time like a tv show or something that you meanwhile focus on the motion of trying to get it out.
good luck!
posted by nzydarkxj at 4:12 PM on January 7, 2009

Another was to practice is to pretend that any R that needs to be trilled has a D before and after it, and that they are not separated. It worked for me, in spanish anyway.

tortilla becomes todrdtilla.

It helps to listen to speakers and think in the languager you are speaking.
posted by gjc at 6:27 PM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

I taught my wife to make this sound (or the romance-language equivalent) as an adult. She started with the "light flapping D" someone mentions above. You have to relax the tip of your tongue in the same was as you relax your tongue and lip to blow a raspberry.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:24 PM on January 7, 2009

Had this problem too when learning Romanian. It becomes particularly fun when phoning up an ISP to get a colleague's email address sorted out and having to spell it out, "a...h...then the letter that comes before s..." I pretty much gave up and then was very surprised to notice that I was starting to roll my 'r's naturally when they occured after a 't' or a 'd' in a word. So then I paid attention to how that felt and practised a bit. Now I can pretty mcuh do it at the beginning of a word if I really pay attention.

In the meantime I became pretty expert at phrasing what I wanted to say in a way that would avoid words where a rolled 'r' was very important. Thinking of how to phrase Sunday School skits to never involve the words 'bad' or 'evil' is quite challenging :-)
posted by alicegoldie at 1:26 AM on January 8, 2009

I'm an American and have been living in Norway for about 10 years now. I've managed the rrrrrrr, but don't quite know how I learned it - but having a 5 year old Norwegian to practice with helped. :-) I have heard many an English speaker speak Norwegian who have NOT gotten the rolled r though, and you're right - it does make a big difference towards sounding like a native.

Would adopting a different dialect's r help - like the skarret west-coast r? The one that sounds like they're clearing their throat? Or the slightly different south-coast one? Apparently these are "gutteral r's":
I heard a Norwegian instructor recommend this for a French girl learning Norwegian once who absolutely could not make the rolling-r sound and if i remember correctly, it helped her.

Lykke til!
posted by Theresa at 1:33 AM on January 8, 2009

Keep saying 'Round and Round the Rugged Rock the Ragged Rascal Ran', attempting to roll your R's on each word. Use all the tips above. It'll take about a week, from my experience with English folk.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:56 AM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's possible! I'm a native English speaker who recently learned Dutch.

It really wasn't working for me until one of my teachers suggested the trick with adding D's as some other people have already said.
posted by eendje at 3:10 AM on January 8, 2009

Well, I've been meaning to learn to do this for a are the links I've collected about how to do it. The first link has a number of different methods for learning, the rest have tips etc.

posted by lemonade at 8:14 AM on January 8, 2009

Yes you can learn how! I was always very jealous of people's ability to roll their Rs. When I met my boyfriend he was patient enough to help me practice until I just got it. He's now my fiance and I delight at purr-ing to him.

Everyone has good tips in here, I just wanted to give you some encouragement that yes, you can!
posted by like_neon at 5:21 AM on January 9, 2009

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