A Trilling Experience

Photo by Narita Martin on Unsplash

Want to sound like a native when speaking Spanish?

If you are an English-speaking American, you have a big mountain to climb.

I believe that one of the biggest challenges for Americans attempting to speak Spanish and sound like a native speaker is the double RR, pronounced ERR REY. This difficult sound requires trilling away on those words that have a double RR and sometimes with ones that have a single R. It sounds a little like an automobile motor that needs a tune-up. Whatever, it is not a natural sound for us gringos, and especially so for me.

The American “R”, in contrast, just lays there, bland, without any distinction. It is sad in comparison, nothing like the vibrant sound produced by the double R in Spanish. As an American, I have to face the truth.

We as a country have a lazy tongue. That tongue is literally laying down on the job. If it wants to be truly Spanish, then it has to reform itself and start vibrating vigorously.

I used to dream of speaking Spanish so well that people would look at me and ask, “Where are you from?” I thought, perhaps incorrectly, that my one big barrier to that happening was the proper rolling of my RRs. It was the mountain I needed to climb.

To be honest, the double RR right from the first caused me a lot of problems. I clearly remember my Spanish teacher in high school trying in vain to get me to trill my Rs. She would hover over my desk and go ERRRRRRRR.

I would try my best, but it was no use. Finally, she would go away shaking her head.
I realized that I had inherited a lead footed tongue that would just not flutter in the right place. The harder I tried, the worse it got. Many teachers since then have tried to help me and failed. In desperation I even used to practice secretly in front of a mirror alone, but to no avail. When the time came for me to trill in Spanish, I always muffed it.

It got so bad that I would try to avoid the words that had this sound. For example I hated the word for train in Spanish which is ferrocarrill. I would always do my best to avoid conversations in Spanish about trains. Two sets of double RRs were just too difficult. If I did try to pronounce that awful word, my conversation partner would look at me and say, “What?”

Since I’ve moved to Peru, things have improved. I live in a town whose name has two RRs, Barranco. For the first couple of years, I pronounced Barranco with a clear American R. Then one day a miracle happened, and I said BaRRRRanco, rolling my R’s with great facility. Since then my confidence has grown steadily, and I fairly consistently do the right thing by the name of my home town. This amazing new skill sometimes spills over into new words.

So, maybe, just maybe, someday I’ll be rolling my RR’s with the best of them.

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