How do I roll my Rs with the tip of my tongue?

2010-11-24

(Another question from HTLAL, where someone seemed to be depressed about never being able to get the “R rolling”, commonly heard in Russian, Italian, etc. It was mentioned in the thread that some Russians have trouble with this sound too.)

I spoke with some Bulgarian friends and they said the same things…that some kids learn to roll their Rs much later than others. I also have a friend who just insists that she can’t whistle and there must be something wrong with her.

The trick with whistling is not just blowing air randomly, like my friend seems to do…You need the right mouth shape to produce a tone. With R rolling, I find that it’s the opposite…you might have the tongue shape right, but not enough air. My theory as to whats happening is that the air-flow is lowering the pressure, and if your tongue is close enough and the tip loose enough, it’ll get pulled towards the roof of your mouth. At some point the space is too tight when your tongue touches the roof, and the pressure increases again, pushing your tongue away so that the air can flow out.

You don’t want your tongue to “rebound” too much, because then it won’t get pulled back in a second time to keep vibrating. You need to keep your tongue in the right place, in order for the back-and-forth effect to work. You also need to push enough air through. Not a ton of air like you’re blasting a trumpet, but more like the amount of air from an exasperated sigh…or maybe a bit more.

You can do this, although it might take more practice. If nothing happens at all, you just need to get more crazy with your mouth shape and tongue position. Experiment, and you’ll find something reasonably close, like one of the previous posters said. Once you get anything that causes your tongue-tip to do something funny, you can hone in on it by trying similar things.

When I was trying to learn some Bulgarian, this was a big problem for me. I practiced hard for days and days and days, and then finally got some tiny vibration, but I found it hard to initiate (especially in the middle of a word). Now I can easily just sit here and vibrate my tongue like that for as long as I have more air to breathe out.

Try these exercises:

  • do the “blowing out the candles” sort of action with a fairly strong breath and an O shaped mouth, and try slowly moving your tongue tip to the spot where a T sound is made. The tongue tip should go fairly close to the back of the teeth. I find it harder to get the vibration when the tongue tip is further back.
  • try to say “hut” where the T at the end totally stops the air (like what an american football quarterback might stereotypically say, to get the ball snapped back to him). This gets your tongue tip to approximately the right place. The next step after this is to practice not quite touching the tongue there, but just getting it close. You should be trying to hold it nearby as the air goes out, so that it can sort of hover there and flutter.
  • try getting the sound started by saying “dra” or “tra” and trying to vibrate the R. A lot of people seem to find it easier to start the motion when there’s a T/D sound (alveolar plosive) first.

It’s not necessary to use voicing…you can start with a completely unvoiced airflow if that makes it easier. I have the feeling that there’s something weird about my tongue positioning at the back that is really hard to describe, so try moving your whole tongue around…or try breathing out to make a “hawwww” sound, as if you’re fogging up some eyeglasses in preparation for cleaning them, but then put your tongue-tip into the “hover” position.

Doing this “haww” sound might prepare you for doing the tongue vibration combined with the “R” sound that is produced with the back of the tongue nearing the top/back of the mouth (like English R). My feeling is that you need this combination in order to make a nice “Rrr” rather than just the “machine gun” noise that others described.

I may be wrong in part of my description above, since I’ve never actually looked this up in a linguistic description, but I’m just trying to describe what I think is happening in my own mouth as I do this. I also don’t know if my physics is correct, but the trick really does seem to be the amount of airflow + getting the tip *just* close enough and keeping it in that neighbourhood so it can vibrate.

Anyway, don’t despair. I thought it was a hopeless task once too, but now it feels easy. If only I could make my German uvular R more consistent 😉