The rolled r comes up in so many languages. I've heard it in various forms in Czech, Thai, Hungarian, Tagalog and of course in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. And yet it seems to be something that evades native English speakers.
The laziest of them will just give up entirely and use the bullshit excuse of “you can't teach an old dog new tricks”. [Despair] You are over 12 years old and your mouth is formed like concrete on being limited to certain sounds for life – all hope is lost! [/Despair]
Others will just rely entirely on the English ‘r' as being good enough, which in my opinion is the worst thing you can do.
I have worked hard on my accents at times, but what strikes me immediately when I start any language (even in my first attempt to utter a phrase) is how natives are so amazed at how I've got almost “no English accent”! (Despite clearly being foreign) While there are many factors at play here, I know that the biggest one by far is that I don't sound like a barking dog like some of my anglophone friends do with their Rs.
The English R is really different, so it gives you away immediately when you use it.
So I want to put a stop to this nonsense of English speakers not trying or even saying they can't. The good news is that it is way easier than you think!! Here are 5 tips:
(Note that here I'm talking about the “Alveolar flap“, as in the Spanish word “caro”, not the trilled ‘r' as in Roberto, or the French guttural r).
1. Use some ‘butter'
American and other English speakers may be surprised to hear that many of them can already produce a rolled ‘r' sound!!
When you say the word “butter” quickly, the ‘tt' sound is produced by flapping your tongue against the roof of your mouth, rather than a normal ‘t' sound (like tree). USE THIS.
It may not be precisely the same as a rolled ‘r' (depending on the language and dialect you are aiming for), but it is mountains more convincing than the English ‘r' at the end of the same word is.
Try changing one letter at a time from ‘butter' until you have your target word (e.g. caro) – use this sound and you're work is pretty much done!
2. Make your l sharper
If you want to sound less like an English speaker, the closest (apart from that above, and perhaps d – see below) sound that you might have to the rolled ‘r' is actually the letter L. I'd recommend you start with this sound and morph it into a rolled r. If you presume it is some alteration of the English r, you'll have a hell of a lot of work ahead of you.
In fact, the l sound involves placing the top part of your tongue flat against the roof of your mouth, and the rolled r sound involves flapping just the tip there. The sound difference is obvious, but the transition is easier if you start from one and move to the other, making your l sharper.
Until then, actually using ‘l' might be a good way of practising deprogramming yourself from the English r. “Es muy calo” is better than the English “Es muy caRo”. It's obviously not a good permanent solution, but a useful stepping stone.
3. Let's get physical
Think of what is physically happening for the rolled ‘r' as I've tried to explain above. This can be explained in a physiological way if you look into the positions of the tongue in your mouth and visualise where it has to be and what you have to be doing with it.
4. Youtube / Google that R
There are many useful resources online that help explain this sound to you in simple terms.
This wikihow article tries to explain step by step what to physically do with your mouth, and recommends transitioning from a d rather than an l as I've suggested.
The same article also outlines several completely different methods (dR, raspberry etc.) to learn to roll (and trill) your R. Try each of these methods and you are bound to find one that works for you!
You may also find doing a Youtube search for “rolling R” or variants to yield some useful results. Having it explained visually as well as audibly can help a lot.
5. Observe others doing it
Promoters of the silent period insist that it's a great way to not get distracted by your own accent and start on the right foot. Of course I'm very sceptical of this claim, especially since that “start” could be any time from next year to the next ice age.
Please make mistakes NOW and try to say something – you have plenty of time to tidy it up towards something better, and these mistakes will not be burnt into you forever if you are truly willing to learn.
However, by watching videos and listening to natives produce those sounds you will get a better appreciation for that R sound than you ever would from reading articles written by Irish guys, or drowning out others from speaking with your English R. Pay attention to how it really sounds and then try to emulate it.
6. Get help from a human being!
The best thing you can do by far is to meet up with a native (or at least over Skype) and ask them nicely to help you with this. Live feedback that is relevant to you and particular problems you are having can do so much more than generic explanations ever can, and it leaves no room for you guessing that maybe you've got it.
Even before I got serious about speaking Spanish, one of the first things I did when I had moved to Spain was to have a patient Spanish speaking friend sit down with me and explain to me how to roll my Rs. It was frustrating at first, then I went away to practise, and came back for more adjustments. But that was it! It really helped me on my road to fluency in Spanish.
Thanks to this friend I eliminated the strong English accent from my Spanish immediately. There are of course other aspects of your English accent, but working on them one at a time and especially getting help, will always yield the best results.
Give it a try! Let me know if you were successful, or what approach worked best for you to roll your R in the comments below!
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.