The Real Reason Some People Can't Roll Their 'R's

Of all the tricks of the mouth, some people struggle with talents, such as whistling or curling their tongue. While the ability to curl one's tongue into a "U" shape does involve a genetic component, studies have also found that young children between the ages of 6-12 demonstrate a learning capability when it comes to this skill (via the University of Delaware). For those who struggle to roll their 'r's' when speaking, just like tongue curling, is it possible that this can also be learned with practice?

Referred to as an "Alveolar tap" or "Alveolar trill" (via Fluent in 3 Months), the rolled 'r' is used in over 2,000 languages worldwide, the equivalent of roughly 40% of languages, including Spanish, Russian, and Italian (via MCIS Language Solutions). Sometimes mistakenly thought of as a rapid tapping of the tongue, the rolled 'r' sound occurs via vibration that's created when air is pushed through the small space between the roof of the mouth and the tongue.

Much like an automatic reflex, stimulating the 'r' rolling muscles of the tongue is actually an involuntary response and cannot be willed through active thought. Despite the rapid movement taking place during the act, language experts say that the tongue itself should remain motionless throughout. If 'r' rolling is involuntary, does that mean some people are simply genetically blessed with this ability, while others aren't?

Practice makes perfect

While challenging for some people, the ability to roll 'r's' can be practiced. For many native English speakers, the struggle lies in the lack of usage. According to Fluent in 3 Months, there is no equivalent sound to the rolled 'r' in English, meaning it doesn't allow for regular practice.

For those looking to learn this skill, MCIS Language Solutions says it may be helpful to think of 'r' rolling as a blowing action instead of a rolling one. Additionally, Fluent in 3 Months suggests some creative ways to activate the sound, rather than exhausting yourself with endless rounds of repeated effort. First, try repeating the word "butter" rapidly. You'll notice that when hitting those "t's," your tongue naturally flutters against the roof of your mouth, creating a similar sound to the rolled 'r.' Using this strategy regularly may help familiarize your mouth with the sensation.

Additionally, while some people may learn through trial and error, others are visual or auditory learners. By using video resources to break down the process, or by listening to native speakers, you can better learn how the sound is produced and attempt to mimic it on your own.