I'm a German native speaker and I can't roll the R at all. It really bothers me and I feel awkward while speaking Russian because it just doesn't sound right. Am I worrying too much? One of my Russian teachers said that there are even Russians who can't roll the R at all, but I don't find this very convincing. Do you have some encouraging words for me? Do Russians have problems understanding foreigners who can't roll the R?
You are, indeed, worrying too much. I am a native Russian speaker, and I couldn't pronounce the rolled R until I was 7. I learned to pronounce it after my parents brought me to a special doctor, who taught how to pronounce Russian sounds clearly. I also was bad at pronouncing the Russian hard L-sound. Even today, if I speak too fast or am too excited I can mispronounce the rolled R. I usually simply skip it when I’m speaking fast.
How did the doctor help me to learn the rolled r? She trained my tongue. She asked me to mimic clicking sounds, the noise that a tractor or a v-8 engine makes and so on. It took me about two months to learn it.
My good friend, who is also a native Russian speaker, has never learned to pronounce the rolled r. She pronounces it in the very cute French fashion - with the back of her tongue. It didn't prevent her from earning a PhD in linguistics. She teaches Communication Theory at one of the most prestigious Russian universities.
Russian speakers do not have any problems understanding foreigners who can not roll their Rs. Yes, we can easily spot a foreigner if he or she pronounces the R like in English.
I found this video particularly helpful:
Benny's article on the website Fluent In Three Months is also very good.
Probably, I will never master short and long vowels in English. It is a much bigger source of miscommunication, since in English, there are words that can be distinguished only by the vowel - long or short. Yet I communicate with English speaking people and normally have no problem being understood. In Russian, there is no sound like un-rolled R, so you can not confuse two similar words only because you don’t roll R.
Photo by Steven Mueller