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Teaching Spanish pronunciation
Teaching Spanish pronunciation

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5.1 Tap or trill?

The distribution of the two rhotics in Spanish is quite special. While they are contrastive in intervocalic   

position; pero – perro, caro – carro, quería – querría, a Roma – aroma etc., in other contexts there is no contrast. 

Only the trill occurs:

  • word-initially; rosa (rose)
  • after land nalrededor (around), Enrique

Only the tap occurs:

  • after a consonant in the same syllable; fraude (fraud), brazo (arm)
  • word-medially before a consonant;carta (letter)
  • word-finally; mar (see)

If the is preceded by an /s/, the sibilant is usually deleted and a trill is pronounced las rosas [laˈrosas].

At higher levels: You might mention that in utterance-final position, /ɾ/ is often devoiced and has a number of pronunciation variations. 

Ideas for exercises

  1. Make a list of words and phrases with r’s in syllable coda and make your students regularly practice them. 
  2. Collect phrases like dar ocas vs. da rocassalí rápido vs. salir rápido and ask your students whether they are pronounced the same way or not and why. 

Activity 2

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes.

Listen to the speech of this student and try to identify the most important inaccuracies in his pronunciation. Focus on the consonants only.

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In this sample there are several pronunciation features that deserve attention. 

The audible presence of the so called “reading” phenomenon is obvious. Firstly, the rhythm and intonation are inadequate and completely monotonous. There are many mistakes that are affected by spelling (hubo with hache, batalla with l), and cognates pronounced as though they were English words (fascista).

We will focus on consonants. The student pronounces the velar fricative [x] as in naranja correctly. This means that the phoneme that has no similar counterpart in English, has been acquired correctly. However, there are a number of features which show that the phonology of the mother tongue has a major influence on the student’s pronunciation. 

The production of voiceless stops is quite aspirated, just as in English (puerto, padeció). 

He produces the alveolar tap or flap [ɾ] (durante) and the alveolar trill [r] (guerra) the same way and pronounced as r is in English. This could be improved, although we would like to emphasise that there is no point in insisting on a rolled pronunciation if it is difficult for the learner. It is more important to point out that he does not pronounce the r’s in syllable coda at all; fundadoR, impoRtante, baRco.

If the above-mentioned errors – which can hinder comprehension – have been tackled, we can focus on /v/ in all its positions, as it is pronounced [v] instead of [b] or [β] (noVecientos), and on voiced stops (instiGó, and De), as they are always pronounced as occlusives rather than approximants.