RRRRRRRRRRR… The Language Learning Obstacle Anki Ain’t Gonna Help With

I will today describe for you what is probably one of the more frustrating obstacles to language acquisition I’ve encountered in recent memory. It goes by the deceptively innocuous name alveolar trill. Oh, trilly, trallah, it’s the alveolar trill! No, no! There’s nothing happy and innocent about this sound!

‘Cross the decadent hill
blows a wind harsh and chill
Oh there’s no sense of thrill
Its blood will I spill–
I just want to kill–
I don’t know how I will–
This alveolar trill!

If a phoneme drives me to poetry you know something’s wrong. Alright then, more soberly:

The alveolar trill is a sound, not uncommon in Indo-European languages. It’s produced (so I’m told) by vibrations of the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge–this is the part of the top of your mouth right behind your teeth. Now, I’ve encountered this sound before: it exists in Russian, and some dialects of Portuguese, German, and Yiddish. Hell, it exists in English–Scottish English, that is. But in all these cases another sound can be substituted. In Portuguese, German, and Yiddish, it’s not present in the standard dialect or the one I wanted to learn, and in Russian you can always switch it for a tap (like ‘tt’ in “butter”). But now, after navigating successfully through seven languages without a hitch (of the alveolar sort), I’m confronted with Spanish.

Spanish, of which I’ve been told on numerous occasions, “Oh, Spanish! That’ll be so easy for you after all those other languages!”, “Hoho, Spanish is so easy!”, “HOHOHAHAHAHAHA!”. They laugh at me, they mock me! For not only is the Trill present in the vast majority of Spanish dialects, but I can’t just use the tap instead because they’re two distinct $%@!&#”$%@ phonemes! That means that there are words with the Trill that, if I use the tap instead, mean something completely different. For instance:

pero (with a tap) means “but”. So far, so good. But then,

perro (pronounced peRRRRRRRRRRRRRo with your tongue flailing wildly in all sorts of unholy directions) means “dog”.

I know what I’m supposed to do, but I can’t make that noise! The mind is willing but the tongue is weak. It does not know how to dance oh so sinfully, licentiously, cunningly. Why will my tongue not take part in this ritual? Does it think of Cortés, in whose mouth the trill helped bring a civilization to ruin? Or of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who used it to afflict our people? Does it not know that this powerful weapon can also bring peace and harmony to the world? Does the Trill not begin words such as rezar, regalo, and risa? But the fleshy lithe muscle attached to the floor of my mouth does not listen. It does not perform. It cannot. It will not. But it must!

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3 Responses to “RRRRRRRRRRR… The Language Learning Obstacle Anki Ain’t Gonna Help With”

  1. julie Says:

    …wow.

    I RRRRReally, tRRRRuly, think you will one day be able to make a tRRRRill noise.

    I liked your poem!

  2. Becca Says:

    I recently became ecstatic because I realized that, after having studied Spanish since middle school and having lived in Mexico for 1.5 years, and still NOT BEING ABLE TO ROLL MY R’s, that finally, FINALLY, my R’s were beginning to randomly roll themselves!!! I’m serious. My tongue has suddenly become like a small toddler learning to walk, able to roll itself in random double-R-requiring moments. I haven’t been able to consistently roll the R’s, but I’m on my way!

    I actually had a dilemma the other day with the pero/perro that you mentioned. My Basic 1 students were taking the final exam and they asked me what “but” meant. I must’ve said “pero” about 50 times– but in that moment I was having a sudden and uncontrollable rolling of my R– and they couldn’t decide if I was saying dog or but. I would try to say it right and the R would come out too rolled, and then I would try to say it with less R and the R sound just wouldn’t come out at all, so finally I had to make a sentence with pero so that they could figure out what in the world I was trying to say!

  3. Motolingua Says:

    Hah, this is funny. I have the opposite problem.

    I grew up in South India (English is one of my native languages). I then lived for 11 years in California. And if I’m not paying attention to my speech, I *still* trill my r’s. After *11* years of being surrounded by people who can’t do alveolar trills. Some Americans ask me if I’m an American who grew up in Scotland!!

    I also speak fluent French. When I lived in France, I had to work really really hard to learn the uvular r (r grasseyé). And I still have trouble using it at times, reverting to my “native” trilled r when not watchful.

    I speak intermediate-level Spanish. But here, with my guard completely down, I sound exactly like a Mexican. Trilled ‘r’ and all. Many Mexicans believe that I’m one of them — I kinda look like them, and when I speak Spanish, the sounds come out effortlessly like theirs…

    As for German, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to use the French r or the Spanish r. I use either one, and nobody seems to care. But I’m a low-intermediate in German…

    Good luck with the rolled ‘r’. Have you tried saying “trrrrr…”, starting off with a heavily retroflex ‘t’?

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