Producing a trilled (rolled) “r” is not impossible for English speakers. It is easier for some than others. Almost anyone can do it, though. I’m here to tell you how!
First of all, a “trilled r” or a “rolled r” is technically known as an “alveolar trill.” This sound is produced with your tongue, NOT your throat! You may be able to somewhat replicate that rolling sound with your throat, but a native speaker will be able to notice and when you’re speaking Russian you will never get away with it. You must use your tongue!
Follow the steps below to begin trilling your “r” in no time!
It’s as easy as 1-2-3…4-5
1. Relax your tongue
An alveolar trill is produced by allowing air to pass between your tongue and the alveolar ridge. The alveolar ridge is the place at the top of your mouth where you say “t” and “d.” (Say them to find out where it is.)
You should not think of this as a scientific equation or anything though. Just relax your tongue and your mouth and let the sound naturally come.
2. Say “butter”
When Americans say “butter” they produce what is known as an “alveolar flap.” You may have thought it was a “d” sound, but it’s not. It’s an alveolar flap. This is really close to an alveolar trill.
Say “butter” and “dumb” and notice the difference between what you thought was a “d” sound.
3. Bend the tip of your tongue up
Say “butter” again, but raise up the tip of your tongue.
4. Let the tip of your tongue vibrate freely, put more breath in the sound
Repeat step #3, but let the tip of your tongue vibrate freely. Breathe out and allow the vibration to occur for a while. This will help you train your tongue to get used to producing the sound.
If you tongue isn’t fluttering or vibrating. Trying saying “butter” really quickly a lot, like: “butter butter butter butter butter butter!”
5. Let it flutter!
Whenever you do produce that alveolar trill for the first time. Keep on going! Let your tongue get used to this sound. Practice rolling your “r” with English words like:
Or with Russian words like:
I can’t do it!
If you tried the steps above, but still cannot produce an alveolar trill, don’t worry. Some people just naturally cannot produce this sound. Vladimir Lenin could not roll his r’s. If you cannot produce a rolled r, never substitute it with English’s “r” (which is technically an alveolar approximant.) Instead replace it with a “d” sound or that flap sound you say in “butter.”
Russian has two trills!
Okay, if you have learned how to roll your r, great. But guess what. The Russian language technically has two different trills: The hard r (р) and the soft r (рь).
The hard “r” is the normal alveolar trill that we have been learning, but it is slightly retracted and is technically a postalveolar trill. Don’t worry about this, though. You can pass off with an alveolar trill, and eventually learn the native retracted one with your ear.
The soft “r” is a palatalized trill that is produced by touching the tip of your tongue to the back of your front teeth. This is going to be hard, if not impossible for you in the beginning. So I recommend simply trying to mix the hard “r” and “y” in the beginning until you can trill your “r” by touching your teeth. Once you can though, simply raise the middle of your tongue during the trill and you have got yourself the soft r!
Good luck! Comment and I’ll help more if you need it.