My Trouble With Learning Na’vi

As with learning any new language, there will be struggles. Trying to get your mouth to move in ways that it never has before to produce brand new sound combinations is hard. Fictional languages are no different. 

I haven’t posted about it very often on this blog but I want to learn Na’vi. I started – and then promptly stopped. Why? Because Na’vi has the ever-dreaded trilled double R. A sound I have NEVER been able to make. 

And I know you’re thinking it. “iT tAkEs pRaCtIcEe”. 

No! The amount of times I have heard this over the course of my life makes me want to burst into a fit of rage. No, it does not “just take practice”. For some people, maybe that’s true. But for the minority, like myself, trilled Rs is a sound I will just never be able to make due to things I cannot control. I don’t know all the sciencey terminology for it, but I am convinced that the shape of my mouth and placement of my tongue and teeth don’t allow me to trill. And here’s something else: I can’t whistle either. And here’s some weird TMI: I’ve been told that I have a “little tongue” (that’s such a weird thing to tell someone, but yes, I have been told this. Should I be worried? Idk). 

Whistling and trilling my Rs has been something I have been trying to do since I was a young child and this is no exaggeration. I remember very vividly how hard and how long I would painstakingly try to create the beautiful note of sound that is a whistle. How upset I would get that I’m following absolutely everything everyone ever told me about the proper way to whistle, and yet no whistling sound ever came forth. And I remember how embarrassed and disappointed I was to find out that my 6-year-old brother could trill his Rs naturally while I sounded like a mashup of choking, gargling, spitting, and on really stressful days – gagging. 

I’ve read blogs, talked to teachers, examined diagrams of the mouth, jaw, and face, allowed my tongue to feel every nook and cranny within my mouth. I’ve even watched countless videos of language teachers teaching how to trill; Native speakers teaching non-native speakers how to trill; Non-native speakers that learned teaching other non-native speakers trying to learn. And I remember watching one particular video with my sister and us both trying. We are both adults. My sister ended up trilling her Rs while I was still making the sounds of a dying animal. 

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My face when my sister learned to trill and I didn’t.

It wasn’t and isn’t fair, and I’m mad about it! Lol. It sounds so silly to me as I type this that I was and am taking this so seriously, but come on! Why can’t I do it?? 

Often, when I find out that a cool sounding language – real or fictional – has the alveolar trill in it, my interest and motivation wanes instantly. But for some reason, it never has for Na’vi. It’s disheartening for sure to know that I will most likely never be able to trill my Rs and whistle properly. And it was even more disheartening to hear one of the more famous conlang creators that I mildly admired pretty much dismiss people who can’t trill their Rs (I won’t name him, but it was during an interview I saw on YouTube where after so many questions he ended up just sounding super pretentious). 

However, learning a new language is supposed to be fun and I am tired of trying to force my body to do things that it just can’t. It’s been well over a decade and I still can’t trill. It’s been well over a decade and I can still barely whistle. I want to learn Na’vi, but seeing words words with the double rr, such as Nìprrte instantly kill my motivation because I know that I will never be able to pronounce it the way it’s supposed to sound, with the alveolar trill. 

I’m tired of people simply chalking it up to endless practice. I’m tired of people saying “everyone can do it” when clearly, I am not a part of that “everyone”. I’m tired of people saying it’s genetic when my whole family can trill, yet I cannot. Does all of this make me want to lash out and throw things? Abso-freakin-lutely. 

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But I have to constantly remind myself that learning Na’vi is for fun. It doesn’t matter if I can’t make the rr sound. It’s a fictional language that probably no one will ever hear me speak. I shouldn’t put so much pressure on myself because there are simply things that everyone just can’t do no matter how much practice is put in, no matter how hard you try.  

While writing this, I am reminded of Mike Wazowski from the movie Monsters University. He knew everything there was to know about being scary. He knew textbooks from cover-to-cover. He knew who all the great top scarers were. He knew how to set up the perfect trap to scare the living daylights out of people. He knew exactly what it took to be absolutely frightening. So what was the problem?

He just wasn’t scary.

No matter how hard he studied, practiced, or tried, he just wasn’t scary. And this is honestly how I feel about trying to learn the alveolar trill, and it was how I felt while endlessly trying to whistle. 

I am trying my best to accept this despite still wishing for that magical day that so many people online have claimed to have, where suddenly, one day, by powers unknown, they just start trilling their Rs despite never knowing how to do so before. 

A girl can hope.

~ Na’vi Dreamer ~