How to ROLL your “R” in ITALIAN + Rotacismo

Pronunciation is, no doubt, one of the first great problems we face when we start learning a new language! In Italian, one of the hardest sounds to pronounce for non-native speakers is definitely the vibrant “R”. In this lesson you’ll find out if all Italians pronounce it the same way, the reason why not everyone is able to pronounce it, and how to improve its pronunciation, for those who cannot.

Learn to pronounce the italian “R”

Characteristics of “R”

First of all, it’s important to point out that not every Italian say the “R” in the same way: that strong and “vibrato” sound is not always as expected. It mainly depends on internal factors (as deficit or communication disorders of childhood, as the so-called “r moscia”) or external, among which the region and the dialect, that strongly affect pronunciation, but be careful: none of these “different” pronunciation makes one “less” Italian than the rest.

The “R” in Italian can have three different positions in the word:

  • between two vowels or one vowel and a consonant;
  • double;
  • at the beginning.

Let’s see how the pronunciation varies in these cases:

“R” between vowels (intervocalic) or between a vowel and a consonant: it’s a softer “R”, without a strong sound. An example is the word “marito”: in pronouncing the “R” we won’t emphasize; the same thing happens, for example, with the word “torta” (here the r will be slightly stronger, but the sound is neither emphatic nor vibrant). No Italian would pronounce it “torrrrrrta”, to be clear. So you won’t have to worry about pronunciation in these cases, don’t push it!

“R” at the beginning of the word, or double: here the pronunciation can get more complicated, because in these two cases one tends to emphasize the “R”, thus producing a vibrant sound. Two examples are the word “Roma” and the word “Guerra” (war): in both cases, the sound “R” is well defined.

Why is it so difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce this sound? Let’s find out, learning how to roll our R’s. Now there will be a technical part! Follow me and don’t give up, because I’ll give you some tips on how to make it “vibrrrrrate”!

Exercises to pronounce the “R” correctly

From a phonetic point of view, the Italian “R” is called alveolar trill and it’s represented by the [r] sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet. It has three main characteristics: it articulates in a vibrant way, which means that the sound derives from the occlusion and the constant air release of the mouth; it’s called alveolar because, by pronouncing it, the tip of the tongue gets close to the upper teeth. It’s a voiced consonant because the sound is produced by vocal cords.

In other languages, such as English, the “R” sound doesn’t come from the mouth: they’re completely the opposite, and it’s impossible to produce a vibrant “R” making the sound start from the throat.

In Italian, the letters “L” and “R” sound similar. By pronouncing the “L”, we roll our tongue, which gets closer to the palate, lightly touching teeth. To pronounce the Italian “L” correctly, it can be useful to imagine having water in your mouth: when we pronounce the word “liquid”, water pours laterally and not frontally, because the tongue blocks it. What happens with “R”, instead? The tongue is more spread out on the palate, or it cannot touch your teeth, but you move it similar to when you pronounce the “L”.

Now let’s try a little exercise: we roll our tongue on the palate as we were saying “L”, but try to say “R”!
How is it? Try with a shift: start with a word that containing the L sound, repeat it a few times and then gradually replace that L with an R, tricking your brain, which will barely notice it. (Example: male —> mare)
Once mastering this skill, make things harder: consider the already learned sound (Ex: mare) and start the transition, by slowly doubling it (marre). Practice for at least 5 minutes per day, preferably in front of the mirror.
Another tip: practice in front of a moka. In fact, the sound of “r” is a lot like the typical sound of moka when the coffee’s ready.

Dialect variations and rotacismo

Still on the subject of “r”, I wanted to talk about another phenomenon you might have noticed or you’re going to notice from now on since we’ll talk about it, I’m referring to “rotacismo” (rhotacization).

With “rotacismo” we mean the transformation of any other consonant into “r”. And this happens a lot in dialects and, therefore, in regional accents. In lots of regions, in fact, the dialect influences the pronunciation of standard Italian.

This happens especially with…

  • Lombardo dialect (even if it is disappearing slowly) especially in peripheal, mountain, rural areas. Here, the intervocalic “l” almost turns into “r” [scœura (scuola) – Miran (Milano) – vorè (volere)]
  • Sardo dialect (particularly in Cagliari area), here the intervocalic “d” is pronunced as “r” [words that normally in Sardo sound like “meda” (“molto”) or “pingiàda” (“pentola”), are pronounced as “mera” and “pingiàra”]
  • Napoletano dialect, where the intervocalic “d” (or that at the beginning of the word) becomes an “r” [caruta (caduta) – maronna (madonna) – rebbet (debiti) – rimane (domani)]

Right, now take your mirror and practice the vibrant r! If you want, you can also make a video and share it with us on social networks! We’d love to receive it! We think it could motivate the others!

How are your r’s going? Write it in the comments! And tell us if you’ve heard “too much r’s” in some cities of Italian regions, because of rotacismo!

If you want to challenge yourself, don’t miss our Italian pronunciation test!

Would you like to take some individual Italian classes with me? You can find me on italki (coupon code: LEARNAMO).