Bloody-mindedness and the alveolar trill

Since my first junior-high Spanish classes I have been rankled by my inability to produce a proper rolled ‘R’. Since I began studying Latin at the beginning of the year, my need to triumph over this handicap has become pressing. I’m sure I sound like some sort of Germani barbarian.

Too many interesting languages require the ability to produce a trilled ‘R’: Latin, Russian, Italian, Arabic, Spanish. I am unwilling to accept this as a permanent handicap. Anyone riding in the car with me on my daily commute would be treated to a wide variety of peculiar noises, a few of which are beginning to approach the proper sound.

My goal is nothing less than mastery of the dreaded voiced apical-alveolar trill. I’ve always been able to produce an uvular trill (which was good enough for Vladimir Ilyich), and I can produce the Japanese lateralized rhotic without problems. After many years, I knew that simply hearing more properly-trilled ‘R’s was not going to solve my problem, but I hadn’t been able to find any detailed descriptions of the anatomical details of its production or useful suggestions for achieving it. “Make a noise like a car engine” and “Purr like are cat” are distinctly useless as they send me straight to my uvula.

When I found out that M—— can produce a trilled ‘R’, I drilled her closely about what exactly happens when she produces it, where exactly her tongue contacts her palate. This was a start, but not enough.

Tongue position for the alveolar trill (image from the University of Iowa)

The University of Iowa has an anatomical animation of a rolled ‘R’ in action (click on Modo -> Vibrantes -> [r]), and even after watching it over and over and over I still can’t relax enough to let my tongue vibrate passively with the airstream; my trill is conscious, slow, and somewhat clumsy.

Much digging on the Internet has resulting in a wealth of advice, some of which is actually useful. Here are some brief excerpts capturing the more helpful tidbits; refer to the links for the full articles:

From LINGUIST List:

  • A trick I use with my students (mostly native English speaking undergrads.) for teaching them how to feel the position of the tongue is to say “I edited it” really fast.
  • you have to train the muscles in the mouth which would be developed as a matter of course in speakers of languages where the [r] occurs “naturally”. You do this by repeating the phonemes [t] and [d] (with some kind of neutral schwa sound in between) as fast as you can, for say five minutes a day.
  • Don’t know if this works but try to put your tongue where you would for English /l/ and think /tr/, then get rid of it later on.

From Tenser, said the Tensor (quoting Jones and Ward, The Phonetics of Russian):

  • Some English people are able to acquire a rolled r by the following method. Pronounce slowly the exercise tədɑːtədɑːtədɑː… preferably with dental t’s and alveolar d’s; then gradually increase the speed. When said very fast indeed, the alveolar d has a tendency to turn into a ‘flapped’ or ‘semi-rolled’ r-sound, i.e. a sound formed after the manner of rolled r but consisting of only one single tap of the tongue (see § 22.4 above). With r representing here the flapped r, the resulting sequence sould be written tərɑːtərɑːtərɑː… or trɑːtrɑːtrɑː… (according to the rate of saying it). It then remains to isolate this r and extend it into the fully rolled sound.
  • [From a comment to the article] First try to produce dental plosives ‘t’ and ‘d’ (Remember that ‘t’ and ‘d’ in English are alveolar plosives). Then with the dental plosives try to make syllables like ‘tra’, ‘dra’, ‘tri’, ‘dri’, ‘tru’, ‘dru’ etc. Try to hit the alveolar ridge immediately after articulating the ‘t’ or ‘d’ sound. (Remember that if you use the alveolar ‘t’ or ‘d’ sounds in these syllables, you can’t articulate the following ‘r’ as a tap.) When you can articulate a tap in these syllables, try to articulate a tapped ‘r’ in syllables like ‘ra’, ‘ri’ etc. When you are comfortable with that, you can go and try for a ‘trill’. For the trill, first try it in isolation, and then use them in syllables.

From Babel Babble:

  • You put your tongue in a [d], [n], [l] or [t] position. Make the uppermost one or two centimeters of your tongue (but not the actual tip) touch the gum (well, that part up in your mouth where you pronounce most of [d], [n], [l] and [t]). Now you’re ready for the difficult bit. Push some air out strongly so that it flows over your tongue. But don’t leave your tongue static. Use the air to make the tongue vibrate quickly, like an annoying alarm clock: rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrin.
  • […] mothers put a spoon on their childrens’ tongues and get them to pronounce a “d” in order to train them to pronounce “r.”
  • I think the tricky bit is to feel how strongly you have to push the tongue against the alveolar region, if you press too strong or not strong enough, your tongue won’t make the right sound.

From WikiHow:

  • Curl your tongue up very slightly just behind your top gums. Specifically the tip of your tongue should be loose and just below the roof of the mouth between the upper teeth and the hard palate: the alveolar ridge. The part of your mouth that contains the tooth sockets is the right place to be.
    • Depending on the specific language your tongue may be slightly touching your alveolar ridge, or not touching.
  • Tense your tongue, but leave the tip loose to vibrate. This sound is known as a trill because it is created with multiple vibrations.
    • Breathe out, allowing your tongue to vibrate with the passing air.
  • The sound is made because of the Bernoulli’s principle, an aspect of physics which defines the movement of fluids and gas over different shapes, and one of the principles of flight. In other words, the shape of your tongue will partially resemble an airplane wing, with the exhaled air passing over the top of the stiff, shaped lower tongue and vibrating the tip against the ridge like the flaps on an airplane wing.

Has anyone out there managed to learn how to produce an alveolar trill as an adult? I’d be very interested to hear tips or stories.

22 Responses to “Bloody-mindedness and the alveolar trill”


  • Not as an adult, but as a semi-sentient adolescent in middle school, a friend recommended the following method:

    Say “Teddy” three times. On the third iteration try to prolong the “d” sound while blowing great quantities of air through your mouth.

    My friend demonstrated this, and he got a trill out of it, but he was not aware of the voiced/unvoiced contrast, so his trill was unvoiced, which doesn’t work for most of the languages I know about with trills (it occurs in Welsh, I think – “rh”)

    Later, as an adult, a voice teacher I accompanied for who had taught at a conservatory in Shanghai before 1949 told the entire class about the “tera-tero-teru” method which he had learned while a student in Belgium. He pronounced the vowels as though they were French, so his “u” was like u-umlaut. Most of the kids in the class didn’t really understand what he was saying anyway – he was of advanced age and this was a community college voice class in America, and the class was about learning to sing by singing basic art songs, which they weren’t interested in because it wasn’t rock or pop or country – so they just waited for the anecdotal frenzy to pass.

  • Hm, thanks for this, dveej. I’ve been producing some very unpleasant sounds attempting your friend’s method, and once, just a hint of the right tongue vibration.

  • Hi, I’m trying to teach myself an alveolar trill as well, thanks for some good advice.

  • This is useful advice. I am so bored of people saying ‘you just have to (insert sound i can’t make)” which doesn’t help as it is just an example OF the trill, not HOW to do it!!

    This is so frustrating!

    I am studying spanish at university and have never been able to roll R’s.

    But, I am as bloody minded as anyone I know!!

    Thanks for the help!

  • 24 year old male year, desperate to learn the alveolar trill. did you have any luck with it so far Paul?

  • I am a college student studying speech pathology, and my prefessor just taught me this great method for learning the trilled r. I was convinced that I would never be able to produce it, but this worked for me!
    You point the tip of your tongue straight up so it very lightly touches the alveolar ridge. Then take the non-bristle end of a toothbrush, or the blunt end of a pen or marker. Anything smooth will work. Put the toothbrush, etc. against the bottom part of your tongue and quickly move it from side while saying “ah.” At first you will sound ridiculous, but if you do it for 5 minutes every day in a week or so you will be able to somewhat produce the correct trilled r. This manual manipulation somehow gets your tongue used to the position it needs to be in to make the trilled r.

  • George: Good luck. The road is hard.

    Richard: I’ve been able to get an alveolar flap that sounds vaguely right, but it’s missing too much of the rhotic character…and it’s only for a flap or two, not a proper trill. It seems to take too much conscious intervention to waggle the tongue.

    l: Thanks for this…much better than the spoon references I’d happened across. I will definitely be giving your method a try.

  • Indeed, everybody can learn it. I am 32 now, my mother tongue has the alveolar trill; however, I was the only one of the family and the class (in the past) that couldn’t produce it; so around the age of 6, they forced me to learn the uvular trill by gargling water, as it was believed in those times that all sounds must be learnt before the age of 7 or it would be to late. So, I spoke my own mother tongue wit a uvular trill, which always made certain people think I was originally from somewhere else, an immigrant in my own country (first frustration).
    Later on I learnt to speak English and Spanish in which over time I became very fluent…. but in English I would try to camouflage the uvular trill with the w-sound there where possible. I’ve always had people making fun of my accent in whatever language I spoke… like: “You sound like a French comedian…” (believe it or not, but huge second frustration). Live in a Spanish-speaking country and speak fluent Spanish with a uvular trill… something simply doesn’t sound right!

    It is an article on the internet that I found a little time ago that changed everything: http://www.wikihow.com/Roll-Your-%22R%22s
    In days, I learnt to roll my ‘r’ by using the “Tiger Method”. I also used the site http://www.uiowa.edu/~acadtech/phonetics/spanish/frameset.html under “vibrantes” and then [r] to see the different steps of the sound-reproduction. As none of the above techniques in this website had worked for me in the past; apparently the tiger method was the only one that did it for me starting from a uvular trill.
    I’m now practicing to soften the trill a little more and use it in different words of different difficulty levels… but I am confident that it’s just a matter of time now before I can speak fluently with a rolling r, the alveolar trill!
    Record your voice on a computer/mobile and listen to yourself in order to easily define errors or its evolution, compare it to the recorded r-sounds on the above-given website (www.uiowa.edu)… and most importantly: DON’T GIVE UP, you might sound ridiculous at the beginning but we can all learn it!

  • Hi, falco…thanks for the great comment and great advice. Sorry that your comment didn’t show up until now!

    Sounding ridiculous hasn’t stopped me thus far, though progress has been sporadic.

    One question for you: when you produce an alveolar trill, does it have the same feeling of “flapping free” as your uvular trill? Or is it a more voluntary manipulation of the tongue such as that produced by a ‘t’, ‘d’, or ‘l’? (Strike that question…I’ve just read the description of the Tiger Method on wikihow, and initial trials seem promising.)

    Thanks for the tips and the encouragement. I’ll post a progress report after I’ve given this method some serious application over several days.

  • Hi Paul, no worries mate, I hope the tiger method helps you like it has helped me.

    My alveolar trill is NOT a flap, but an absolute vibration, which I can produce so hard now that even my nose wings and cheeks are trilling; something you can never get with a uvular trill. Flapping is shorter and slower. I don’t need any leading letters to produce a rolling r; however… Here some points:

    1. Dry: I can’t do it with a dry mouth (and practicing a lot makes your mouth dry). Think of this, two rough surfaces can’t “glide” against each other, the same way your tongue will block instead of trill, like a forced l-sound
    2. Tension: Your entire mouth and tongue must be relaxed; no muscle under tension can be trilled. So your tongue is just “pointing” to the alveolar bridge, whether or not touching it. Don’t tender your tongue muscle!!!
    3. YOU don’t make your tongue trill, but the AIR that YOU are PUSHING out is!!! So, a lot of air hitting against a relaxed tongue pointing upwards = alveolar trill
    4. I still need a certain amount of air pushed out to produce the trill, therefore, I can still not “whisper” a rolling r… yet!? But, slowly but surely, getting there.

    One thing is to produce the rolling r, another one to talk with it. Here some remarks:

    - Habit 1: In my daily life, I continuously switch between Spanish, English and French (I hardly ever speak my mother tongue nowadays). So, the alveolar trill can only be used in Spanish! French and English are no problem (I learned the English “r” overtime, so no w-camouflage anymore) Bottom-line, I still need to consciously switch between the r’s
    - Habit 2: words I have been pronouncing with a uvular r for the last 1-2 decades suddenly need to be re-learned with an alveolar trill which is not that simple. No sound coming from the throat anymore but now from the opposite side (alveolar bridge)… a change in mouth articulation I still consciously have to make.
    - Leading R… no problem: RRRRomeo, RRRRadio … nice hard and trilling
    - A lot depends as well on leading/preceding and following letters. The t and d-sounds make the production easier (tRRRen, dRRRacula) whereas the k and g-sounds (like in golf) make it difficult (words like gracias sounds like gueRRRRacias, crecer like keRRRReceRRR)
    - The ending r is not a trill but a flap, which I still have trouble with. Amar should end with an alveolar flap or block in stead of a trill, so not ama-RRR as what I still produce.

    Anyway, practice makes perfect… I guess, so I’ll keep up the practice. Good Luck to y’all!!!

    P.S. for those interested, I was born severely tongue tied and clipped at birth… and still learning to roll my r’s now as an adult, so it is possible!

  • falco,

    thanks for all of your advice!

    I’m just wondering how it went for you. It’s been like six months.
    I’ve just begun to learn and I curious how/if you were able to implement the trilling r into your every day sentences.

  • Dear Mjel,

    Well believe it or not but I am speaking Spanish now with the alveolar trill in my daily life. Sometimes I still have to consciencely produce the trill, but in general it works just fine.
    I learnt that the though trills are at the leading r’s and the “rr” in the middle of a word like in “perro”; which I both now produce, one better then the other. Just note that the though Spanish r is in fact a very smooth tongue movement, so not harsh or rough at all!
    The alveolar flap is still under practice, but really getting there, no trill but a single flap all based on the same principle as the alveolar trill.
    The best of all… the proof that it really works; already more then once a Latin-American thought I was a native hispanohablante (Spanish mother tongue) … the best compliment someone could give me.
    Bottom-line, it does work for real, a little optimism and a lot of practice and your r’s will roll as well! Good luck!

    • Thanks for weighing in again, falco, your results are heartening. A quick question: what’s the level of soft palate involvement when you produce your trill? Using the tiger method I’m up to producing something that sounds close to right, with the airflow vibrating the tongue. However, it seems as if I’m still having a fair amount of vibration in the soft palate…different from an uvular trill, though: much farther forward and tighter, seeming to be right up at the border of the hard palate (my descriptions are doubtless hampered a bit by my somewhat fuzzy concepts of oral anatomy). Also, how tight or relaxed is your throat during production of the sound?

  • Hi Paul,

    I do understand your question.. when going from a uvular trill to an alveolar trill, you have to practice to get your trill higher up out of the throat and your tongue more forward; as followed:

    - Uvular trill = tongue flat, trill/vibration in throat like a gargle
    - Palate trill = tongue curled backwards, throat half vibrating + palate “trilling” (roaring in the tiger method)
    - Alveolar trill = tongue pointing softly up, no throat vibration, no palate vibration but tongue trilling

    Those are the stages I went through, so I guess, once you know how to “push” your r’s up out of your throat and make the palate trill, I would say, you passed the toughest part. Now practice by curling your tongue backwards in your mouth and pointing against your palate, so that when you make your palate trill your tongue trills with it, just to get used to the trill feeling of your tongue (this is a new feeling and new muscles that need to be used for the first time). Little by little, practice by moving your tongue from backwards slightly more forwards and “transfer” the trill from the palate more to the tongue, till you get to the moment that your tongue is pointing relaxed upwards (whether or not touching your palate/alveolar bridge) and freely trills in the air you blow out.

    Once you know how to make your palate trill, use this to learn to make your tongue trill, and suddenly a switch will happen and the trill will move to the tongue.

    Good luck Paul, you’re now close to rolling your r.

  • Hi,

    I’m taking an acoustic linguistics class, and this perennial question arose. I personally could always do an alveolar, though monolingual English, but I’ve been scouring the internet for tips for those who can’t. The uvular-to-palatal-to-alveolar sounds like the best bet for those who can do an uvular trill, or even any kind of raspy, trillish, rollish, Germant ach-ish, somewhere along the way. I think what happens is, once you can work forward to some kind of ‘trill’/vibry-rasp thing at the palate, and can bend back the tongue-tip a bit at the same time, it will pick up vibrations from behind and then the practicer will be able to FEEL, get feed-back, as to when, where, and how, the tip is at its best RESONANCE configuration.

    I’ve been fiddling with this method for an hour now, and without doing my own trill, just pushing a back-trill forward, it really does seem to transfer quite naturally to a forward alveopalatal trill. (The dental-trill is the sine qua non of trills. I cannot do it; it is found in Romanian, and our Hungarian-born TA does it quite easily.)

    If you can’t do any back trill, don’t worry about it. Just force air out with your tongue-placement point moving forward with a rasping, scrape-a-gob-of-spit-up-and-out sort of racket. Do this a few minutes day (so as not to hurt yourself) until you can do a ‘trill’, or raspy buzzing, at the soft-palate/hard palate junction, and keep it buzzing there continuously (until you run out of breath).

    Doing that, start the tongue front bent back maneouver while palate-buzzing/trilling. Keep adjusting position, buzzing, air-flow/pressure all over the place, till you feel the vibrating getting picked-up at the front of the tongue. The tip doesn’t have to be bent-back even. If it’s starting to vibrate in any configuration, that’s good. Keep it going until you can get it bent upward toward the gum ridge while keeping it vibrating.

    Good luck.

  • ‘with your tongue-placement point moving forward…’

    By ‘point’, I don’t mean the tongue-tip, of course. I mean the point of contact of the tongue with the mouth: tongue-back touching uvula, tongue-middle to palate, etc. and all places in between. Think of those rounded rubber-stamp things you roll onto the document, rather than bang down once. Only upside down.

    • Thanks for the suggestions, Dan. They’re practical and mechanical, which seems to be exactly what is needed. I’ve been stuck at the palatal trill for a while, and your advice may be just what’s required to induce the vibration to move forward. I’ll put in some focused work over the next few days and see what I can do with it.

  • I’m in the exact same boat as you. I want to learn Latin, but hate the idea of not being able to master the pronunciation. I’ve proceeded along an almost identical path.

    I find it most enfuriating that it’s so easy to inadvertently slip and produce a similar sound in another manner.

    If only the Iowa animation was 3D with controls for tempo and camera angle.

  • Hey everyone, I just learned the trill yesterday without even realizing it. The way I did it was I cleared my throat so hard it hurt but I guess my tongue was in the way and it started to flap. It was the first time I’d ever felt it and I have been trying to learn for months after I started to learn Swedish. I had been trying with all the other methods listed on this site but I couldn’t get it. I spent all day practicing yesterday and I can trill my tongue until I run out of breath 90% of the time now (still need more practice).

    The difference between my attempts at trilling now and before was the way I was blowing the air out of my mouth. Before I was trying to blow the air out of my mouth much in the same way people blow candles out on a birthday cake but I was just putting my tongue in the way. I don’t think works because moving the air that way does not provide the necessary force to flap the tongue. The air has to be blown from the throat in the same way when you clear your throat before speaking or if you’re sick and trying cough phlegm up (Sorry about the visual haha). Just try not to blow as hard.

    I’m getting better at it now. At first there was a loud hissing noise (like a cat or snake) because I was blowing so hard but with a little practice I can now almost do it under my breath. I hope this helps anyone trying to learn the trill.

  • Thanks for the read. For years I’ve been trying to pronounce the alveolar trill without success. Just recently I’ve managed to pronounce a what I believe is called a dental trill (with the tongue right behind the top teeth) which gives a sound somewhere between a trilled th, and s or z depending on voicing. It’s a trill, but it doesn’t sound like an r at all. But as soon as I move by tongue back away from the teeth, the trill stops and all I get is an s/z. I’ve tried all the methods listed here and nothing has worked (so far). Any suggestions?

    • Ben: Take a look at this post describing the tiger method (and take a look at the comments, as well). There are descriptions of some different techniques that you can try. (The tiger method starts with the vibration in the back of the throat, and you gradually move it forward.) Perhaps you’ll be able to meet in the middle?

  • Just thought I’d add–

    Producing the alveolar trill, in my personal experience, has a TREMENDOUS amount to do with the shape of your tongue and mouth.

    Ankyloglossia (also known as “tongue tie”) is a condition in which the lingual frenulum restricts tongue motion. It can make articulation of an alveolar trill simply physically impossible, or exceedingly difficult (in which case it will sound horribly forced, almost cacophonous).

    Ankyloglossia is best treated through LASER surgery–cold steel methods of correction are obsolete, and it should only be done by a SURGEON, not just a “doctor”. I say this from experience because my tongue was harmed greatly by a “doctor” who cut my frenulum with scissors, which is an obsolete method that in adults and occasionally children can result in the tongue adhering to the floor of the mouth as the scar tissue forms!

    I have undergone many surgeries to correct my ankyloglossia–still can’t produce a reliable alveolar trill in a word (yet I can do the sound all day now, isolated). Interestingly, only the right side of my tongue can trill right now–the left side cannot. And no amount of will power can change this, unfortunately. But as my surgical wound heals, I am hopeful the trill will occur from a more symmetrical location.

    Also, alignment of teeth and the position of the jaw has a lot to do with the ability to produce this consonant, as well as many others.

    Speech therapists generally have no idea about these things (with some exceptions). If you REAALLY can’t produce a sound after a long time of trying, you may wish to put aside the “work ethic” and start looking at the physical position of your tongue, teeth, and jaw.

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