One of the most difficult consonants for new speakers of Spanish is the letter “r.” Many students of Spanish—especially native English speakers—believe their tongues are too straitlaced for the romantic undulation of the Latin “r.” However, English speakers may actually already have an innate sense of the pronunciation of the Spanish “r.”
As Spanish students know, there are two kinds of “r”s, the double and the single. The double “r,” made famous by a trilling Charo, is actually simpler to pronounce in Costa Rica than it is in some other Spanish-speaking countries. Costa Ricans do not dramatically roll these two “r”s the way some other Latin Americans do when they say words like “carro” or “perro.” Although all Costa Ricans are capable of creating the spectacular “r” roll, most pronounce the double “r” more modestly and conservatively.
An English speaker can approximate this modest Costa Rican double “r” by making a softened “j” sound. Simply pronounce an English “j,” but separate the tip of the tongue from the roof of the mouth to make a near-“z” sound. Then, allow the middle of the tongue to “hollow out” away from the roof of the mouth. The sound is like the whirring some children make when simulating motor or engine noises. Use this sound when saying a double “r.” With a little practice and timing, an English speaker can very closely replicate the Costa Rican double “r.”
The pronunciation of the single “r” sound, found in words like “para” or “flor,” is also within the grasp of an English speaker. To pronounce this single “r,” an English speaker should notice their tongue placement in pronouncing the English “d,” as in the word “bed.” The tip of the tongue firmly hits the roof of the mouth and stays there momentarily. By pronouncing this same “d” more lightly and quickly, and English speaker can very nearly recreate the “r” in Spanish. The sound is not a true “d,” but it begins as a “d” that quickly flicks away. Pronunciation, although slightly more difficult, is still the same in an “r” that precedes or follows another consonant, as in “Pedro” or “tarde.”
Using pronunciation skills they already have, English speakers can pronounce many Spanish words far more accurately and impressively than they might otherwise have believed.
Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.