The R’s my Spanish teacher never told me about

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If you’ve been around this newsletter for long, you’ll have heard me tout the value of listening to Spanish from different regions. 

A big part of that is exploring the pronunciation changes you get outside of textbook Spanish. 

Why bother learning about this? 

It’s simple: pronunciation changes aren’t limited to casual situations or “lazy” speech. 

Whether we’re listening to a newscaster, a street vendor, or a president, we can hear speech patterns that differ from what we learn is “correct” or “standard”. 

By tuning our ears to this kind of variation in Spanish, we….

  • Learn to understand more people from more places
  • Stop being limited by a textbook understanding of the sounds of Spanish. 

And there’s one sound whose variants I’ve rarely seen mentioned online: 

The R. 

So today, I want to explore some of the different ways Spanish speakers produce the R and RR. 

Entche tú y yo

When I arrived in Chile years ago as an exchange student, I noticed something interesting about the way lots of adults pronounced the TR sound. 

Words like entre, nosotros, and traer sounded like entche, nosotchos and tchaer. 

I’ve heard this variation on the R from speakers from all over Latin America (I’m not sure if it happens in Spain — if you happen to know, let me know!). 

For example, listen to how Rodrigo Chaves, president of Costa Rica, says ‘nosotros’ in the clip below: 

“Mira, nosotros no estamos solicitando ayuda en el sentido de pedir caridad. Nosotros tenemos un mensaje muy claro para el mundo…” 

Eventually I learned that this was just one of the many ways Spanish can sound different in the real world than it does in educational sources. 

As it turns out, everyday Spanish isn’t always as phonetic as Spanish students tend to learn. 

Soon, I came across other variants of the typical R.  I wouldn’t recommend adopting any of them intentionally, but it’s important to recognize them so you’re better prepared to understand native speakers.

One such R variant is a sound I’d describe as a mix between the S in “measure” and the Z in “zebra”. 

I heard it first from speakers in Peru, but it’s common throughout the Andes region of South America. 

Rather than “trilling” their R’s, as in perro or rojo, that rr comes out as more of a buzzing sound. 

You can hear some great examples in the below interview with renowned Bolivian architect Freddy Mamani Silvestre. 

Listen to how he says the RR sound in the words carreteras and barro in the clip below: 

“…donde hacía carreteras, construyendo plazas, edificios de barro y piedra…” 

Another unique twist on the R is the way some Caribbean speakers, especially from Puerto Rico, swap the R for an L.

This doesn’t happen anytime there’s an R. You’ll only hear this when an R comes at the end of a syllable, as in hablar or parte.

So if you visit San Juan, you might hear someone talk about esta palte de la ciudad instead of esta parte, or ask if you hablal español instead of hablar español. 

In the clip below, listen to how a researcher pronounces trabajar and parte as he describes his experience on Cayo Santiago, an island off Puerto Rico inhabited only by monkeys:

“Pero según empiezas a trabajar con ellos y pasa el tiempo, yo me vuelvo parte de su grupo…”

Interesting side note: you can hear the opposite phenomenon in parts of Andalucía, Spain: the L in falda or alma can come out as farda or arma (source).

Raising your threshold for Spanish comprehension 

If you’re trying to wrap your head around the standard sounds of Spanish, don’t be dissuaded by these switch-ups in what you’ve learned. 

Practicing your comprehension of these challenging pronunciation differences helps raise your threshold for what you can understand. 

It’s like doing one of those “Couch to 5k” challenges. On day one, you might feel like you’re going to die after running a mile. But after a month of pushing yourself, that one mile feels like pan comido (a piece of cake). 

So rather than avoiding it, get curious about the many ways Spanish adapts to different speakers and places. You’ll develop a sharper, more flexible ear in the process. 

Want to train your ear and pronunciation in a fun, step-by-step way? The Confident Spanish Pronunciation course can help.

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Hey there, I'm Connor. I help motivated learners speak Spanish without slogging through grammar books or tapping through every new app. I started Breakthrough Spanish to give more people the confidence and focus to learn effectively Spanish from home. Learn more about me here.

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