Alveolar Trills Revisited: Enter the Tiger

Since my original post on the topic, I’ve tried many methods to learn to produce a rolled ‘r’.  After quite a bit of practice, I managed to come up with an alveolar flap that sounds more-or-less like it should, but a sustained trill remained elusive…until now.

Commenter falco (whose comment, I admit shamefacedly, was missed and has languished in the approval queue since January) writes of his early troubles (and recent success) learning the trill:

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).


It is an article on the internet that I found a little time ago that changed everything:

In days, I learnt to roll my ‘r’ by using the “Tiger Method”. I also used the site 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.

What is the tiger method?  I was initially skeptical, as other initally-promising methods that I’d tried had met with only indifferent success.  wikiHow (whose Creative Commons attribution clause states that I need to write that this excerpt comes from “ – The How-To Manual That Anyone Can Write or Edit”) describes it as follows:

The key to rolling R’s is creating the proper vibration. The vibration starts at the back of the tongue and moves toward the tip of the tongue (like a wave). If you can produce the German “acht” or Arabic and Yiddish pharyngeals and basically clear your throat, then you can roll R’s. This seems counter-intuitive because rolled R’s are pleasing to the ear – whereas pharyngeals are harsh. The vibration is the key and the same technique is needed to roll R’s. Remember: The air passing through your larynx and mouth makes the sound.

  1. Start by practicing that clear-your-throat “ckh” sound. Try to turn it into a “grr”. Don’t be afraid of sounding ridiculous. Do whatever it takes to make the roof of your mouth vibrate. (This skill also comes in handy when speaking Chewbacca and making a variety of animal noises.) Practice getting the feel for that vibration. Your throat might get a little sore at first. You’re working out “new” muscles and they’ll get stronger with use.
  2. Press the tip of your tongue against the alveolar ridge behind your teeth. Your tongue touches the right spot when you finish saying the letter L and the letter N. Say L or N and at the end of the sound keep your tongue firmly in place. Try to say “girl” and “hurl” without removing the tip of your tongue from your alveolar ridge. Use the clear-your-throat vibration to start the word and try to form the vibration into a rolled R. Initially, use the “G” sound to kickstart a rolled R. At first, you will sound like a strangled tiger (grr, grr, grr), but you’lI start rolling R’s. Eventually you will be able to purrr using purrrfectly rrrrrolled Rrrrrrrrrrrrrr’s.
  3. Practice and refine. Once you can get your R rolling, experiment with the position of the tip of your tongue. To move the sound toward the front of your mouth, add the “Z” sound in front of your R. Practice adding vowel sounds (ah, ee, uh, o, oo) before and after the rolled R’s.

My instant results were astonishing.  At first, it sound much like someone trying to strangle a pig.   (This method is not for the self-conscious!)  Almost immediately, though, my tongue started vibrating with the airflow.  Within five minutes I managed something that sounded (and seemed to feel) like an actual alveolar trill.

This method is a little hard on the throat, and after ten minutes I was starting to feel a bit light-headed.  I will be continuing to practice over the next week, and will report on how it goes.  At the moment, once I achieve the trill I can sustain it indefinitely, but there is much hunting around before tongue and airflow find the right position and balance of tension.  If I attempt to transition into a word, it falls apart.

falco concludes his comments:

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 (… and most importantly: DON’T GIVE UP, you might sound ridiculous at the beginning but we can all learn it!

Intelligent bloody-mindedness is the key.  If you’ve been trying to learn to roll your ‘r’s, I strongly recommend giving the tiger method a try.  If anyone has successes (or failures) using this method, I’d love to hear about them.