Pera o perra: Rolling the “r” in Spanish
During a Spanish lesson about food, a student said: “Me gusta comer perras”, which translates as “I like to eat bitches”. Although, what he said is just as amusing in English, it was easy to understand that he actually meant, “Me gusta comer peras” (I like to eat pears).
As the student is vegetarian, it would make more sense that he would prefer to eat “peras (pears) rather than perras (bitches)”. Fortunately, although some of his classmates laughed at this remark, he didn’t take it personally and the class moved on.
The above illustrates a very common difficulty for Spanish language students when learning how to roll “r” properly. Something which I experienced when learning English when attempting to pronounce, amongst others: ship and sheep, cheek and chick or bin and bean.
The example of peras or perras is one of many in which students have to pay attention to the subtlety of the pronunciation concerned. Basically in this case the rolling of the “r”.
It may appear to be a bit of a challenge to learn how to roll the “r” properly for some students. However, as my students and my own experience have shown, there are no obstacles which cannot be overcome with practice, patience and endeavour.
Fear not! Toddlers often find difficulties rolling the “r” when they begin to learn how to speak Spanish, their mother tongue. It takes time for them to master the verbal technique of rolling the “r” properly. The learning and mastering of the “r”sound is part of the nurturing process undertaken by parents and family as they help to refine their children’s pronunciation.
The “r” phoneme is one of the most complicated to acquire and this is why it is one of the last to master. This is applicable to both native Spanish speaking children and for many adults learning Spanish as a second language. For both, the obstacles experienced in pronouncing the letter “r”, will be temporary and will improve with practice.
There are many ways and techniques to improve and master this sound. The manner of “r rolling” is known as a trill. Linguists call it “the alveolar trill“(vibración alveolar). That is, the sound is made by vibrating the tip or the blade of the tongue, against the alveolar ridge, the upper area of the mouth between the upper front teeth and the palatal area of the mouth. There are two distinctive sounds of the “r”: the single roll as in pera or the “rr” trilled as in perra.
Be patient and give it time. What about if we begin by using some of the old techniques that parents and teachers used to get their toddlers to learn?Frequent and loud repetition of tongue twisters (trabalenguas) will exercise the muscles in the mouth needed to roll the “r” sounds in the Spanish way. There are many of them, shall we start with this well known one?
Erre con erre
Erre con erre guitarra
erre con erre carril,
mira qué rápido ruedan, las ruedas
Erre con erre guitarra,
erre con erre barril,
rápidos corren los carros
cargados de azúcar
erre con erre carril,
qué rápido ruedan
las ruedas del ferrocarril.
 Phoneme is the smallest distinct linguistic unit of sound used to differentiate one word from another.