How to pronounce the "American R" as a Spanish native speaker

It is no surprise that language learning, especially when done with textbooks, focuses on grammar and vocabulary, with little attention paid to pronunciation. The result is that learners may be fluent on paper, but struggle to be understood when they speak.

When it comes to Spanish and English, many sounds that are spelled the same are actually pronounced quite differently. Consequently, native Spanish speakers who learn English are unable to pronounce many English sounds with full clarity and confidence. This is also true in reverse for English native speakers who learn Spanish.

The only way to get confidence when speaking a new language is to understand the mechanical differences between the sounds in your native language and the target language. Then, it's important to practice the shape of the target sound until you gain the muscle memory for it, and it becomes second nature.

Let's explore the letter R, a key sound that is very different in Spanish versus English.

"R" in Spanish

Let's start with “r” in Spanish, in Standard dialects of Latin/South American, Mexican, and Castilian Spanish.

First, Spanish uses a “tap” or “flap” sound, where the tongue-tip touches the hard palate (the alveolar ridge to be exact). This occurs where you see a single “r” in the spelling between vowels—including across word boundaries—and after certain consonants—p,b,t,d,c[k],g, and f sounds (with the exception of some prefixes like sub-).

English actually has this sound but not for an “r” spelling. It occurs in certain words with t or d like “butter” or “buddy.”  The “r” in “carro” is similar to how an American would pronounce the last two syllables of “avocado” in English, namely that fast-action “d.”

Next, Spanish also uses a “trill” sound, where the tongue tip quickly vibrates by repeatedly touching the hard palate (the alveolar ridge again). This occurs where you see “rr” in the spelling OR when a word begins with “r.”

"R" in Standard American English

English uses a curled/bunched tongue R (a voiced, alveolar, approximant) where the tongue tip does not touch the top of the mouth. This sound doesn’t occur in Spanish. Think of the ending sound in the annoyed growling utterance, “Grrrrr!”

For Spanish speakers in English, we recommend feeling where your tongue would go to start the “r” in the word “rosa”—but lower your tongue tip so it’s no longer touching the top of your mouth – and curl it back a bit. (You may also feel the back of your tongue “bunching” a bit towards your top back molars.) Once you have this position, let your air and voice flow!

The good news is, you can pronounce all “r”s this way—regardless of whether there’s one or two of them together and regardless of its position in a word.

How to Master the Pronunciation

The first step is to understand that the sounds are made differently in each language, even though the spelling is the same. Congratulations -- you already did this by reading the explanation above!

The second step is to actually practice this new mouth shape. Try it initially by itself, and then in the context of words and phrases, so you get comfortable using it in everyday speech.

BoldVoice will allow you to do precisely that. On the app, the accent coaches will demonstrate the mouth shape for the R sound, and every key other sound that differs between Spanish and English. Then, you'll be able to practice and get immediate feedback on how close you are to the "perfect" pronunciation by the Speech Artificial Intelligence.

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