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Usually, in English, the R letter is pronounced either as alveolar approximant or retroflex approximant. The alveolar trill, while not incorrect is used only in a few dialects or, rarely, in emphatic speech.

In my mother tongue (Polish) R is always pronounced as the alveolar trill. Yet this consonant is notoriously difficult for children to learn; this is typically the last sound children manage to master. Also, while the majority pronounces this sound correctly, yet there are surprisingly many adults who have never learned it and substitute it for the "French R", "English R", L, or how English people would pronounce W, as in wabbit.

Because of the sound's apparent difficulty my assumption was that, barring these dialects where it is the usual version, the majority of native English speakers, have never learned how to pronounce the alveolar trill. After all, the sound seems so rare that, as I was assuming, most people have never had the incentive to learn it, nor were they pressured to do so.

Obviously I made this assumption completely a priori and have never had the chance to verify it. Thus it may be utterly incorrect.

Are native English speakers typically able to pronounce r as alveolar trill or not?

  • If they took Latin in high school. – MikeJRamsey56 May 16 '18 at 19:07
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    In Britain the full-on alveolar trill is so rare most of us are more likely to encounter it as a facetious usage played for laughs in movies / TV comedy shows than as natural speech in real life. A more restrained version is common among some Scottish speakers, so presumably they could more easily exaggerate it. But as to what percentage of the rest of the population are capable of articulating it, and to what degree, I think that's just a matter of opinion. And not much to do with modern English usage, since by and large we don't use it. – FumbleFingers May 22 '18 at 12:35
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    @FumbleFingers "But as to what percentage of the rest of the population are capable of articulating it, and to what degree, I think that's just a matter of opinion." - No, the percentage is a fact, not an opinion. Anyone's estimation of this percentage can be their own opinion. But not the percentage itself. – gaazkam May 22 '18 at 12:42
  • In some hypothetical universe that we don't live in, I suppose it might be possible to objectively establish a value for said percentage. But like I say, we don't live in that universe, so the only responses possible here are opinions. – FumbleFingers May 22 '18 at 12:49
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    @MikeJRamsey56 - If they watched potato chip ads as a child. – Hot Licks May 22 '18 at 12:50
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I haven't been able to find too much research addressing this question, but one relevant source is "Intervocalic Rhotic Pronunciation by Adult Learners of Spanish as a Second Language", by Timothy L. Face (2006).

Face compared 41 native American English speakers who were studying Spanish at the university level (I assume at the University of Minnesota, because Face is a professor there) to 5 native speakers of Spanish. 20 of the native English speakers were fourth-semester Spanish students, and so would be considered intermediate learners, while 21 were Spanish majors or minors.

Face found that students in both categories had much higher error rates for the production of the alveolar trill than the native Spanish speakers. The more advanced students were more likely than the intermediate students to mispronounce the trill by replacing it with a tap (which is a Spanish "r" sound, just not the correct sound in the context of the words that were being studied).

Face's introduction also references an earlier study, "English Speakers' Acquisition of Voiceless Stops and Trills in L2 Spanish" by Jeffrey T. Reeder (1998), which looked at data gathered in 1997 from 40 native English speakers learning Spanish at the university level and 5 native Spanish speakers. Reeder also found fairly large differences between the native English speakers' and the native Spanish speakers' pronunciation of /r/.

My impression, based on these two studies, is that it seems likely that a significant proportion of native English speakers have difficulty with consistently using the alveolar trill /r/ in fluent speech in a second language. Depending on how you define "able to pronounce r as alveolar trill", that could indicate that many native English speakers lack this ability. If you use a definition that doesn't require consistency, and just requires somebody to be able to produce the sound at some point, then presumably more English speakers could be categorized as "able to pronounce r as alveolar trill", but I don't know of any studies that focus on that.

The two studies looked at relatively small groups of students, so it's not clear to what extent the results generalize to "native English speakers" as a whole. Nevertheless, I think this at least counts as evidence that the acquisition of trill /r/ is not trivial (as gaazkam's question pointed out, even native speakers of a language with /r/ may take a while to master this sound), so it seems unlikely that monolingual native English speakers, who typically don't acquire this sound as part of learning English, would have the same ability to pronounce it as speakers of other languages that do use /r/ regularly.

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My understanding was that the shift from the "French R" to the "English R" only happened fairly recently, as in, in the past 200 years or so. Before then, virtually every native English speaker pronounced 'R' with a flick of the tongue, like an 'L'. As such, people could probably pronounce the trill fairly naturally.

However, I think most native speakers now form 'R' more like how they would form a 'W', and that change basically went unnoticed. And generally there's no need to use a trill in everyday speech, so a greater amount of people just never learned how to do it.

If I were to ask somebody I know at random, I would guess the percentage who would be able to pronounce the trill would be about 60%. I know plenty of people who can, but lots of people (including me) just can't quite get it.

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    Which French 'r'? The current one is a voiced velar (or uvular) fricative /ɣ/ (or /ʁ/). Are you saying that the English 'r' used to be universally an alveolar tap /ɾ/? – Mitch May 25 '18 at 18:37
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    As a native speaker of both English and French, I can guarantee that while each language has very different r sounds, neither prepared me for pronouncing an alveolar trill (or tap!) when I started taking Spanish in high school. Living in Madrid now, and I still flub my r's sometimes and tend to default to a French r which is nothing like it (it's in my throat; a uvular fricative as @Mitch says). Are you saying that at some point French and English both used alveolar taps and diverged in different directions? – KernelPanic May 25 '18 at 22:51

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