Spanish tongue twisters, or trabalenguas, are authentic language and packed with culture. They are also short, with rhyme and rhythm. But how do we make them useful for Spanish learners? A language has to be meaningful for kids to learn. That is the catch with Spanish tongue twisters.
Tongue twisters play with sound, so meaning is secondary. For native speakers, that is part of the fun. However, my students have limited exposure to Spanish, so I need to use that exposure to maximum benefit. As teachers, if we share Spanish tongue twisters, we need to make sure students understand them and can use the language in other contexts.
Is it worth the trouble? That will depend on your situation. However, one reason to try Spanish tongue twisters is that they are fun, a good way to practice pronunciation, and a great way to expose kids to more culture.
Tongue Twisters for Pronunciation
Tongue twisters give kids a reason to pronounce the same sounds over and over. One of the drawbacks, that kids are not communicating information, actually makes tongue twisters useful for this very specific purpose. Students can focus on sound and pronunciation, which is something we often don’t take time to do in class.
For example, the letter t in Spanish is different than in English – it is dental, so the tip of the tongue goes right behind your teeth. With the classic tongue twister Tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en un trigal, kids can focus on getting their tongue in the right place, and also practice the flap of the single r.
Spanish tongue twisters also give kids practice with repeated vowel sounds. Pronouncing vowels correctly is essential to being understood in Spanish.
And of course, there are whole tongue twisters created specifically for learning to roll your Rs. There are many versions featuring guitarra, cigarro, barril, carros, and ferrocarril in combinations with the verb rodar and rápido. This is just one short example: R con R guitarra, R con R barril, qué rápido ruedan las ruedas del ferrocarril.
Pakapaka, an educational TV channel from Argentina, has some excellent videos of kids trying to say orginal tongue twisters. Here’s an example of Pakapaka’s trabalenguas Escandalosos escultores se esconden en esquinas a escupir escorpiones.
Make Spanish Tongue Twisters Meaningful
Pictures For Clarification
One of the best ways to clarify the meaning of Spanish tongue twisters is with pictures. I included two tongue twisters in Season 2 of our YouTube series Buena gente.
In the show, Alejandro is learning tongue twisters and has pictures to share with his students. You can see them in the video below. The first tongue twister is the classic Tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en un trigal. There are longer versions of this tongue twister, but this first line is a great place to start.
We made the image for the series, to clarify the words in the trabalenguas. I’m sharing a version here with Spanish Playground readers, too. There is a PDF in color and another in black and white for kids to color.
Questions to Build Context
One of the ways to make Spanish language meaningful it to treat them as real language. Explore the content, instead of just playing with the sound.
For example, in the case of Tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en un trigal, we have to ask ¿Por qué están tristes los tigres? It is also logical to wonder why the tigers are eating wheat!
You can see Sandra ask these questions as she thinks about this Spanish tongue twister in Episode 2 below. The relevant content is in the first minute of the video.
Tongue Twisters as Cultural Content
There is no doubt that many Spanish tongue twisters are culturally relevant, and that is another reason to share them with students. Treating the them as real language and exploring the content give us the opportunity to tap into the culture.
For example, the other tongue twister in Season 2 of Buena gente is about coconut. Coconut grows in many Spanish-speaking countries, along with other tropical fruits. The tongue twister says Como poco coco como, poco coco compro.
To expands on the cultural component, it makes sense to explore how people in these countries use coconut and the other fruits they buy and eat.
You can see a good example in Episode 3 below. The relevant content is in the first minute of the video.
Choosing Spanish Tongue Twisters for Language Learners
Spanish tongue twisters are fun, so I do think it’s worth choosing a few to use with Spanish learners. Again, because I have limited time with my students, I choose Spanish tongue twisters that lend themselves to pictures, questions and conversations.
First, I look for trabalenguas with concrete, familiar language. This is because I have an easier time representing them with images. Also, if the language is familiar it means it is something they will use in other contexts.
Next, I decide whether to use just part of the tongue twister, rather than teaching the whole trabalenguas. Some of them are long, and shorter segments are meaningful. With those Spanish tongue twisters, I use a relatively short segment and the kids repeat it. That is the case with Tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en un trigal and Como poco coco como, poco coco compro.
With other Spanish tongue twisters, the meaning depends on using the entire trabalenguas. Because meaningful language is my priority, I teach the entire tongue twister. That is the case with Pancha plancha.
Pancha plancha con cuatro planchas.
¿Con cuántas planchas Pancha plancha?
For this tongue twister, I usually have to teach noun plancha and the verb planchar. I have also had to explain the action itself – in today’s world of knit and wrinkle-free fabrics, not all kids know what ironing is!
This tongue twister also lends itself to a discussion of gender roles. You can talk about housework and who traditionally had responsibility for which tasks. This makes a great review of house vocabulary.
Spanish Tongue Twister Book
In his picture book El torneo de trabalenguas / The Tongue Twister Tournament, author Nicolás Kanellos offers a wonderful selection of Spanish tongue twisters. The author also makes these rhymes accessible to language learners by creating a context for reading and practicing Spanish tongue twisters.
The characters in El torneo de trabalenguas / The Tongue Twister Tournament participate in a tongue twister contest where “el mejor torturador de nuestras lenguas” wins. In other words, the story incorporates the idea that readers will say the trabalenguas and decide which is the most difficult.
You can read more about the book and find suggested activities here: Spanish Tongue Twisters: Book and Activities
How do you use Spanish tongue twisters in class? We would also love to learn new tongue twisters, so if you have favorites, please let us know.