Roll Your Russian R’s Like a Ruski
June 2, 2013
If you are a native speaker of English who is just starting to learn Russian, you may not know how to roll your Rs. Russian has two different rolled-R sounds. One is a trilled rolled R, but the more common rolled-R sound is a lightly rolled R that you might use in the Russian word “ruble.”
If you are having a hard time with this sound, start by saying the phrase “Prince of Prussia.”
Then change the phrase to put a lettter D in between the P and the R, and say it again like this: “Pdrince of Pdrussia.”
Say this over and over again, trying to say it faster every time. Keep your jaw closed to the point where you can only fit a fingernail between your back teeth while you do this.
These other exercises should help you learn to roll your Rs as well:
The English words butter and ladder, when pronounced with a normal US accent, produce the same tongue motion that is used to produce the rolled “R” in Spanish.
- Say the word “butter,” then say the word “ladder”.
- Feel the tongue on the inside of your mouth “flip up” during the second syllable, barely touching the gum above and behind the top row of teeth, almost touching the roof your mouth.
- Now say each word faster, “Butter, butter, butter, ladder, ladder, ladder”.
- Continue saying the words faster and faster. If you prefer one of the words, you may use it exclusively. Eventually you’ll produce a sound like: Bu””””” (the “”” representing the trilling motion), or La””””. Then try the “RR” in Spanish (ER”””RE).
- Try saying, “Los barriles y borregos van a Monterrey en ferrocarril.”
- Spanish tongue twister: “Erre con erre cigarro. Erre con erre barril. Rápido corren los carros sobre los rieles del ferrocarril”
- Try the dR method which is supposedly the only way Lenin was able to “fake” the trill sound. It is similar to the pD Method.
- Try saying “Dracula” and see if it helps you roll the R by putting a D in front of it. Touch the tip of your tongue to the bottom of your two top front teeth. Then when say “Dracula” and notice the tongue moves loosely but quickly from the tips of your teeth to the roof of your mouth.
- Practice using the R in word-initial combinations as “dr-“, “tr-“, “br-“, “pr-” – it is much easier to pronounce in those positions. Once you can do that, work on dropping the initial consonant.
The key to rolling Rs 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.
- 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.
- 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 Rs. Eventually you will be able to purrr using purrrfectly rrrrrolled Arrrrrrrrrrrrrr’s. (like a pirate)
- 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 Rs.
This assumes that you already know how to blow a raspberry / do a Bronx cheer using your tongue against the underside of your top lip. This sound is technically known as an “unvoiced linguolabial trill”. There is a great deal of similarity between a raspberry and a trilled R. Both sounds feature the tongue vibrating against the underside of another part of the body (the lip / the roof of the mouth).
- First, blow a raspberry in the regular manner
- Add voicing to the sound, simply by activating your vocal cords
- Slowly lower your jaw as much as possible while allowing the raspberry to continue. Don’t lower the jaw so much that the raspberry stops.
- As quickly as possible, try to move the tip of your tongue to just behind your front teeth. Don’t change anything else you are doing — either in your breath or your voicing. Try to make the movement solely about the tip of the tongue, not involving any other part of the tongue.
- If you do this right, you will now be trilling an R!
Push Trill Method
This method may help you understand the trill differently and get a feel for it. It does not involve any word drills and simply requires you to move vibration from the back of your throat to the front of your mouth.
- To begin you need to be able to start a vibration in the back of your throat. This is a different type of trill that is much easier for many people. It definitely doesn’t sound pretty (think of a clearing your throat kind of sound, you’re almost acting like you’re sick and your throat is swollen up and congested), but it works as a great stepping stone to the alveolar trill that we want.
- Once you can get this trill loud and constant, hold it and blow a small burst of air through your mouth. Feel the different parts of your tongue vibrate and focus on making the tip of your tongue vibrate. Keep it loose and either touching or close to the alveolar ridge (ridge behind top gums).
- Little by little, work on getting to know how the alveolar trill feels. Work on doing it with less and less air, and then try to work it into words that require a trill.
“Vision dream” Method
This method will help you achieve your first rolled “R”. It was developed by, and worked successfully on, a native speaker of English who had not successfully rolled a “R” in over 20 years of trying. This method uses the English phrase “vision dream”.
- Take a very deep breath.
- Say “vision” so that the central “zh” sound is very drawn out, lasting 3 to 4 seconds, like this: vizhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhion.
- Make a huge crescendo (increase in volume) while you’re on the zh sound. It may also help to raise the pitch gradually.
- Make the final syllable of “vision” very short, but continue to get louder. By the time you say the final “n” of “vision” you should be making the loudest sound you possibly can.
- Coordinate the rest of the phrase. The “ion” of “vision” should only last a fraction of a second, before you launch into the “dr” of “dream”. The “dr” of dream should be the climax of the phrase. You should be putting so much energy into your sound at this point that you may well feel somewhat faint.
- Switch to the “dr” of dream and try to relax your tongue, especially the tip, making it as floppy as possible. At the same time blow air out of your mouth as hard and fast as you possibly can.
- Allow the tip of your tongue to be thrown forward by the intensity of your breath into the back of your front teeth.
- Allow your tongue to “bounce” back and forth between the front teeth and the gum ridge.
- Know that you have successfully rolled your “R”s if the tongue bounces back and forth with a sound that feels a little like “dagadagadagadaga”. This may not happen the first time you try it — if so don’t be discouraged!
- Continue trying if it doesn’t happen the first time.
- If it doesn’t happen the first time, try putting your tongue in different places for the final “n” of vision. You could try putting the tongue right against the teeth, against the ridge in the roof of your mouth, or anywhere in between.
- If you are still having difficulty, try some of the techniques below for reducing the volume required to trill your “R”s–these may also help you to trill it the first time.
- Once you have done the roll once, the second step is to achieve the same effect at lower volume levels. Most people who don’t learn how to roll their “R” during childhood build up tension in the tongue over their lifetime (in the same way that people who have desk jobs and don’t stretch regularly tend to build up stiffness in the hips and hamstrings). The high volume and energy of this method helps to overcome that stiffness. Once you have identified the parts of the tongue that need to be flexible you can release the tension so that less energy is required.
- Know that the first time you achieve a rolled “R” it may be accompanied by sounds in the back of your mouth, such as a French (uvular) “R” or a velar fricative as in German “ach”. Don’t worry about this: the unwanted activity will go away naturally as you get more comfortable with the roll. Two ways to help are to yawn just before you start the “R”, and to smile broadly during it.
- Another exercise that is useful is to alternate between uvular (French/German) R and alveolar (Spanish/Italian) R. Start with the uvular R and then “blow” it to the front of your tongue with a sudden gust of breath. Then repeat.
- Consider the bilabial trill. This is the “Brrrrrr” sound that people make to indicate that it is cold: it’s made by closing the lips lightly and blowing between them so they flap against each other. Alternate the bilabial trill with the alveolar trill, trying to imagine your tongue flapping against your gum ridge with as much ease and flexibility as your lips have when they flap against each other.
- Try mentally focusing all the energy from your breath on and just in front of the alveolar ridge (right in your upper mouth just behind the front teeth). Simultaneously imagine that the front of your tongue has a natural trilling ability, and that simply dropping it in the breath stream will cause the trilling to be activated without any effort.
- Try to roll it in other situations. In roughly ascending order of difficulty:
- tr — say the word “trip” like a Scotsman. It may be easier to start with “drip” and gradually reduce the voicing just enough until you say “trip” instead.
- gr — say “that’s GReat” with a Scottish accent. If this is difficult, try producing the “G” sound further forward than usual, against the hard palate rather than the soft palate. It may also help to imagine that the “G” sound is just a relatively unimportant prelude to the “R” sound.
- kr — “If it’s not Scottish, it’s KRaaap”. As with “Gr”, it may help to make the “K” sound more forward than usual.
- pr — say “prego” as in Italian for “you’re welcome”
- after a short vowel, as in burrito
- at the beginning of a word (this is the hardest of all)
- Don’t give up!
- The trill is not easy for any language speakers! It is most often the last consonant sound learned by children in trill languages, and most languages that contain trills also contain words describing people who cannot do them.
- A famous example is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), father of the October Revolution, founder and leader of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1923. Lenin was unable to create the alveolar trill, which is rather unfortunate when you are the leader of the Rossiyskaya Sotsial-Demokraticheskaya Rabochaya Partiya (the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party). So, don’t feel so bad if you cannot get this easily.
- The specific trill consonant you need to master depends on the language you are learning. Trills are common in many world languages from those widely spoken to obscure dialects. Trills are present in Dutch, German, Spanish, Thai, Russian, Italian, Armenian, French, Croatian, Slovenian, Estonian, Finnish, Norwegian, Polish, Tagalog and Arabic, to name just a few. In each language different kinds of trills are made with different parts of the mouth. For example, in German the rolled R sounds is actually a Uvular trill, produced at the back of the mouth rather than the front.
- The sound is made because of the Bernoulli’s principle, an aspect of physics which defines the movement of fluids and gas over different shapes, and one of the principles of flight. In other words, the shape of your tongue will partially resemble an airplane wing, with the exhaled air passing over the top of the stiff, shaped lower tongue and vibrating the tip against the ridge like the flaps on an airplane wing.
- Another method of preparing your tongue for the rolling of Rs is surprisingly simple: practice repeating the following sounds in rapid succession: tee-dee-va. Do this in your spare time, such as while you are driving. In as little as a month, you’ll be rolling Rs with ease.
- Relax, relax, relax!!! If you have problems with trilling your “R” it is likely that you are failing to relax your tongue sufficiently. The tongue should be as relaxed as possible, with just enough tension localized in the tip of the tongue to keep the tip touching the alveolar ridge while the air is flowing through.
- For example, many native speakers of English tend to tense the root of the tongue when speaking (the root is the part of your tongue that you can feel if you put your fingers as far back in your mouth as possible until you are about to gag). You cannot roll an “R” if the root of your tongue is too tense, because it will make contact with the back of your throat and obstruct the airflow.
- A good exercise is to do a nice, long yawn, trying to relax the tongue as much as possible while keeping the tip of the tongue gently touching the alveolar ridge.
- Another good exercise is to roll on a large exercise ball so that your head is dropping down from your neck. This will tend to create more space in the back of your mouth and to relax the root of your tongue.
- A good “visualization” exercise is to imagine that you are a puff of air coming up from the lungs, going over the root of the tongue and headed for the tiny gap between the tongue tip and the alveolar ridge.
- Use a mirror! Often, it is difficult to tell by feel alone whether your tongue is in the right place.
- The alveolar trill is difficult for native English speakers because, with the single exception of some Scottish dialects there is no use of the alveolar trill, or many trills at all, in English. Many trills, the alveolar trill being no exception, use muscles in the tongue and mouth we, as native English speakers, simply do not use often for speech. It is the flexibility in your tongue and your ability to shape your inner mouth that make the trill possible.