I am one of those native English speakers who always had a very difficult time learning how to roll r's when learning other languages as a child. Now that I'm an adult, I'm trying to learn Thai, and I decided that it's time I learned how to roll my r's once and for all. To my surprise, I learned that there are many ways to roll an r. In fact, the term 'rolling' seems to only refer to a subset of all the possible ways to pronounce an 'r', and many people (myself included) err in using the term 'rolling' to refer to all these pronunciations together.

From watching this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9eN2B7Wj68 I see that the different ways of pronunciation are:

Alveolar approximant
Alveolar flap
Alveolar trill
Retroflex approximant
Retroflex flap
Uvular trill
Voiced retroflex fricative
Voiced uvular fricative

According to the video, the 'rolled r' that shows up in Latin/Spanish/Italian is the Alveolar trill. I'm wondering what type of 'rolled r' shows up in Thai. Is it the same one?


I don't know any Thai whatsoever. But we can look at the Wikipedia page on Thai phonology. In the section "Consonants", it says the trill is [r]—the IPA symbol for the alveolar one, with the tip of the tongue vibrating next to the upper front teeth (if you're American, this is a lot like the 't' in "better"—IPA [ɾ]—but you have to touch the tongue tip against the roof of the mouth several times, vibrating it with air). Looking at the Wikipedia page for [r] (found via the IPA table), we confirm that it is, indeed, the same one as in Latin, Spanish, Italian, Scottish English, Yakuza Japanese etc.

I've consulted Comrie's The World's Major Languages, which confirms this. However, it also includes this note:

The phonemic state of /l/ and /r/ in Thai appears to be in a state of flux; however, all phonemic descriptions of Thai still list the two sounds as separate phonemes. The writing system, moreover, has separate symbols for each of them. Most Thai, especially the educated, claim to distinguish between the two. This seems to be the case for slow and highly conscious speech. In fast speech, however, /r/ freely alternates with /l/, although certain forms occur more often with /l/ than with /r/. Many speakers regard these alternating forms as indicative of ‘less correct’ or ‘substandard’ speech. Linguistic hypotheses suggest that this lack of stable contrast may signal a sound change in progress.

So, expect some variation between /l/ and /r/.


This will be not a very scientific answer, but from experience, native Thai speakers use all types of approximants, flaps, and trills for ร /r/. The approximant may be reduced to a very short duration which can be hard to detect altogether. Quite often, they also interchange (mix up) /r/ and /l/, in both directions. It differs a bit for people of different social status, or when people speak official/polite language versus the "street slang", but don't take it as an ultimate rule.

Moreover, using the "correct" version of alveolar trill may be perceived as overperfection.

For example, alveolar trill also exists in my native language (Ukrainian), so it makes no problem for me to produce this sound. However, when I use it, like in the word ครับ [kʰráp] (a male polite particle that ends almost every sentence), someone may repeat it after me indicating that they have noticed the "overly perfect" trill.

Summarizing the above, a language learner should:

  1. be aware that a native speaker may use virtually any type of approximant, flap, or trill for both /r/ and /l/ or skip it completely;
  2. for yourself, try producing /r/ as close as possible to the "perfect" alveolar trill because your accent introduces many other imperfections that you don't yet notice. Don't add there yet another imperfection.

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