Monday, 21 April 2014

From Pirates to Dracula, in search of the perfect 'R'

I've heard it said that one of the most difficult things about learning to speak a new language is learning to make sounds which don't exist in your own language.
My own take on that is that it's even harder if there is a similar sound in your own language.

So, in this post, we're going to concentrate on one letter -  the letter 'R'

You may have, like me, listened to Spanish podcasts, seen American actors speaking Spanish on TV, or watched recordings of other people's lessons on Verbling.
A lot of people, as you will notice, have problems with pronunciation of the 'R' sound in Spanish.

I want to pronounce my 'R's like a Spanish speaker, not like a Pirate.
I asked my Spanish teacher, Eunice, about this, as I'm quite aware that my 'R's are a little weak, and she explained the root cause of the problem with a short lesson in anatomy.
Apparently, just behind your upper teeth is a flat ridge, just before the roof of your mouth arches upwards to the hard palate.
This is called the Alveolar Ridge, and sounds which are produced with the tongue positioned against this ridge are called Alveolar sounds, and include 'd' 't' 'l' and 'n' in English.
In the illustration 'A' shows the Alveolar Ridge and 'P' shows the palate.
The letter 'R' in English is not an Alveolar Sound.
Trying saying 'Arrrr!', as if you were practising for International Talk Like A Pirate Day and be aware of where the tip of your tongue is, in your mouth.
Unless your anatomy is significantly different to mine it's probably about midway back along the roof of your mouth, making it a Palatine Sound.
In Spanish, you guessed it, 'R' is an alveolar sound, which means it's formed with the tongue in a completely different position.
So, if you've been trying to make that fantastic rolling 'R' in Spanish, and failing miserably, it's quite possible that your tongue has been in the wrong place all along.
There is quite a lot written on the subject of getting your tongue position right, but most of it is down to practise.
That in itself can be a challenge, if you don't have a 'feel' for where the correct position is.
So, before trying the 'R', it's best to limber up with a few Alveolar Sounds you do know.
Try saying 'do, do , do, to, to, to' then while your tongue is in pretty much the right position, try 'rroo, rroo, rroo' trying to make the trilling 'R' as the air vibrates over the tip of your tongue.
So, by now you're probably saying one of two things, either 'YESssss!' or 'Huh?'
If you don't get it immediately, just keep practising. Having your tongue in the correct place greatly increases the chance of success.
You'll soon want to have a go at some real Spanish words but pick carefully.
Some combinations of letters are easier than others.
For instance, I find that 'R' following 'O' as in 'dorado' is much easier to enunciate than 'R' following 'I', as in 'mirar', and 'R' after 'B', as in 'abrir' is easier than 'R' after 'N', as in 'enriquecer'.
Start with combinations you find less difficult, and work up to the ones you have problems with, as you improve.
Oh, and have plenty of water handy. I don't know why, but practising the 'R's makes my mouth incredibly dry.
Finally, once you've mastered the rolling 'R', you need to be aware that some 'R's are pronounced with more emphasis than others, so you have a 'Strong R' and a 'Soft R'
The 'Strong R' is found . .
At the beginning of words e.g. Remo, Rojo.
At the end of words .e.g. Hablar, Comer.
Where the R is double e.g. Cigarro, Ferrocarril (ouch, double double R)
Before a consonant e.g. Horno, Armas
Before a vowel, but after 'L', 'N' or 'S' e.g. Alrededor, Enrique,Israel
In all other cases the 'R' is 'softer'
Oh, where did Dracula come in?
That's just one example of a word I use when practising the Alveolar sounds.
Don't bite your tongue :)