I'm a college student from Florida and native speaker of American English, and I've got a problem: I can't make an alveolar trill. I've heard tons of methods for acquiring it, like saying "tee-dee-va" or "ladder" over and over again, but I find myself eventually saying "tee-thee-va" and "lather," as if I've got a lazy tongue. I understand that the point of these exercises is to develop that flick of the tongue that usually happens with the d-sound, but I don't recall ever having been able to do that with my tongue. As of now, I'm making sounds that almost sound like I'm on the right track to trilling, but my tongue remains flat and I'm only using one side to vibrate. So what would you
say is wrong here?
It is notoriously difficult to learn to make an alveolar trill. It took me nearly a year to acquire this skill myself, even though I was a highly motivated postgraduate ambitious to become a proper phonetician, professionally required to be able to make all the sounds on the IPA chart. The teacher who finally helped me conquer this hurdle was Marguerite Chapallaz, and she did it by getting me to relax. I was lying supine in the bath at the moment I first succeeded, so it might be worth experimenting with different body orientations.
What it comes down to is that you have to hold the organs of speech in the right place, relax, and then produce an airstream. You don’t actively move anything to make the separate vibrations: it’s all done by aerodynamics. (Physicists will tell you it’s the Bernouilli effect.)
As Ladefoged and Maddieson put it (The sounds of the world’s languages, p. 217),
This is very similar to the vibration of the vocal folds during voicing; in both cases there is no muscular action that controls each single vibration, but a sufficiently narrow aperture must be created and an adequate airflow through the aperture must occur.
One useful hint is to start with trills you can make. Most people can make a voiced bilabial trill, brrr [ʙ], or its voiceless counterpart. Some can make a uvular trill (think Edith Piaf, nɔ̃ , ʀjɛ̃ də ʀjɛ̃…). Use these to get a feel of how trills work.
(If you can do a voiceless uvular trill [ʀ̥], it’s fun to do it while whistling. It makes you sound like a referee’s whistle.)
If you still can’t manage an alveolar trill, it may be a consolation to know that there are tens of thousands of native speakers of Spanish and Italian who can’t make one either, but replace it by something or other that is easier. Yet they manage to function in those languages.
If you can make [r], and want a further challenge, try the retroflex trill of Toda. Only the onset is retroflex; the actual trill is alveolar.
Like spɛkjələtɪv ɡrəmeriən, you could also attempt a nasal-ingressive voiceless velar trill. Or not.
Sorry, Kyle: I haven't got a magic bullet.