The Alveolar Consonants

The Alveolar Consonants

If you say these English sounds “ta…da…na” repeatedly out loud to yourself, you will notice that for each sound, you are touching the tip of your tongue to the exact same spot in your mouth – right where your teeth meet your gums.  This region is called the Alveolar Ridge.
Alveolar Consonants are consonants articulated at the alveolar ridge.  English has the following Alveolar sounds:

/t/ /d/ /l/ /n/ /s/ /z/

In Spanish, there are two additional alveolar consonants – The Alveolar Tap (&) and The Alveolar Trill (%). 

Alveolar Tap – /&/

  • This sound is created by lightly flicking the tip of your tongue against the alveolar ridge.
  • It is most similar to the English /d/ sound.  Indeed, many English speakers will have trouble distinguishing these two sounds.  
  • The difference between English /d/ and /&/ is that for /d/, we build up air behind the tongue and release it, whereas for the /&/ there is no air buildup.  As such, it is helpful to conceive of /&/ as a fast English /d/.
  • If you find it difficult to create this /&/ sound, it is best to temporarily replace it with the weakest English /d/ sound you can manage.  
  • Also, recall from the last page that the Spanish /d̪/ sound is made with the blade of the tongue (just past the tip), distinguishing it from the /&/ made with the tip of the tongue.
  • In most North-American dialects of English (and some other English dialects) this sound does actually exist.  For example, Americans will typically say the word “better” with a tap in place of the /t/:  “be-&er”.  The audio file below has more examples of the alveolar tap in English.

Alveolar Trill – /%/

  • This sound is created by directing air over the tongue in a way that causes it to vibrate rapidly on its own.
  • If you cannot pronounce this sound, it suffices to replace it with the alveolar tap /&/.
  • Because this sound has been so exoticized in the English world, it receives more attention from Spanish learners than it deserves.  Actually, the alveolar tap /&/ is infinitely more important to master than the trill /%/, since the tap /&/ occurs much more frequently.  Not that the trill is not important to learn, its just that mastering the tap sound takes much higher priority.
  • Some will find it easier to produce the trill /%/ than the tap /&/.  As a result, the might replace the tap with the trill sound.  This is not a good habit to develop. There are many instances of Spanish where it is actually physically impossible to replace a tap with a trill at normal speeds.

The Real Difficulty with the Alveolar tap

As stated above, the alveolar tap is infinitely more important in Spanish than the alveolar trill.  Indeed, mastering the alveolar tap is going to be your biggest challenge in learning to mimic and ultimately speak Spanish fluently.The real difficulty in this sound is pronouncing it in combination with other consonants, namely /d/, /t/ and /l/.  Because all these sounds are realized in the alveolar region, it is difficult to pronounce them in quick succession.  To bring your alveolar tap strength up to the levels needed to keep up with the normal speeds of Spanish, I have created a series of drills to develop your speed and strength in producing this sound in every combination possible in Spanish.  You will find all of these drills in the Pronunciation Drills section.  As you progress through the Spanish sections, you should refer to these drills regularly to build up your tap strength and speed. 

English Speaker Tendencies

In the Spanish writing system, the alveolar tap and trill sounds are written “r” and “rr” respectively. Since most people learn Spanish through writing, most English speakers incorrectly replace these alveolar tap and trill sounds with the vastly different English “r” sound, as in the word “Rap”.  

This is why I arbitrarily use the “&” and “%” symbols to represent these sounds in The Flow of Spanish.  Conceptualizing these sounds with symbols other than the “r” has proven extremely effective in reducing mispronunciation for English speakers.  You do NOT want to build this English “r” habit, as it will seriously cripple your Spanish abilities.  The presence of this sound in your Spanish will adversely effect your pronunciation of other sounds, especially the vowels.If you plan on speaking Spanish with the stereotypical English accent, you might as well not waste your time studying Spanish at all.  The English accent will force you to hit a ceiling early on, and you will never advanced past basic speaking abilities.  And I can assure you, NO ONE finds the English accent in Spanish to be attractive.

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