The Most Dreaded Letter in Spanish – and English
The following article is from Paul, an English teacher who lives in Argentina. Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. Check out their free online Spanish level tests and other resources on their website. Visit their Facebook page or contact email@example.com with any questions.
The Most Dreaded Letter in Spanish – And English
Erre con erre cigarro,
Erre con erre barril,
Rápido corren los carros,
Por las rieles del ferrocarril.
– Spanish tongue twister
The word rural has the same spelling and meaning in both English and Spanish. And it inspires terror in learners in both language. For the English speaker learning Spanish, it contains both forms of the Spanish “R”, which involve various degrees of complicated tongue-rolling. And for the Spanish speaking learning English, it contains two instances of the notoriously challenging rhotic “R”, in rapid succession.
The tranquility of this charming rural scene is interrupted only by the fear of pronouncing the word “rural” incorrectly. Image via Petritap / Wikipedia
But if Spanish and English speakers are physiologically the same – our tongues work the same way; our mouths are the same shape – why is this letter such a challenge for us? Or, more generally, why is it so difficult to produce sounds in different languages? The answer has to do with babbling, and how we learned languages when were babies.
What it really means to babble
When we’re babies, we’re blank linguistic slates. We can learn any language in the world, and we can easily learn multiple languages at the same time! Indeed, the baby’s brain is enviable for those of us who are struggling to learn a second language in adulthood.
Being able to learn any language means being able to make any sound. Have you ever heard a baby babbling and suddenly they make an unfamiliar sound that you’ve never quite heard before? This is due to the fact that babies can – and do – make any sound in any world language. The “strange” noise you heard might be a perfectly normal vowel in Lithuanian.
But as babies are exposed to the speech of those around them, they start paying attention only to the sounds that their caregivers make. If a baby’s mom never rolls her tongue, the baby learns, “Ah, tongue-rolling must not be important in my mom’s language.” So she stops producing that sound in babbling, and eventually, she may lose the ability to produce it altogether.
This process is referred to as synaptic pruning. When we’re babies, we form synapses – connections between brain cells – when we hear and produce certain sounds. As we grow, we fortify (and thus speed up) the synapses that we use, and we prune away the ones that we don’t. This leaves us with efficient pathways for the sounds in our language, but makes it very hard to re-learn sounds that aren’t found in our native tongue.
Why we have accents
So, back to the word “rural”. If you struggle to roll your Rs, it’s very possible that you could at one point – you most likely did it while babbling! – but, given that our caregivers never rolled their Rs, the neural pathway that allowed us to roll our Rs withered away. Similarly, for Spanish speakers, the pathway responsible for producing the rhotic R in English disappeared.
So what can we do about our accent? Will we ever be able to say “rural”? Well, first of all, practice makes perfect: the more time you spend speaking a foreign language, the better your accent will become. (And a tip for American English speakers: the sound of the double-T in “better” is nearly identical to the single “R” sound in Spanish. Try it!)
After lots of practice, perhaps one day you will be able to totally overcome your accent and blend in with native speakers. But if you can’t, don’t worry. Accents are often seen as a source of shame or embarrassment, but they shouldn’t be. After all, if you have an accent, it means that you speak more than one language! So be proud of your accent, and whether you’re speaking English or Spanish, say the word “rural” with relish. Think of your accent not as a reason to be embarrassed, but as a trophy for being bilingual.
Note from Jim – Paul, this is great stuff. I so enjoy your posts and the way in which you craft them. Oh, and I can tell you that the word ‘rural’ has always caused me problems when I speak Spanish. Now I know why!
Until next time readers,
Jim Porter is a co-founder of Speekee®, home of the most comprehensive Spanish learning program for children ever to appear online
Jim began his Spanish learning journey in 1990. He has been a language teacher since 1994 and he lives in sunny southern Spain with his two bilingual children. Loves it! More…