An Accent Myth? The East Asian L/R Mix-Up

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Writing the Korean l/r symbol (Wikimedia)

A few days ago, I watched the American holiday classic A Christmas Story.  At the end of the film, the family of the main character visits a Chinese restaurant.  Being Christmas, the wait staff attempts to entertain their American patrons by singing, in comical accents:

Deck the hars with boughs of horry
Fa ra ra ra ra ra ra ra ra …

This crude joke on the impression that East Asian people, when speaking English, confuse r‘s with l‘s (and vice versa).  It’s a gag repeated in countless films and TV shows (albeit less so, thankfully, in a more politically correct era).  Is this merely a racist stereotype?

It is true that several Asian languages and dialects do not distinguish /r/ from /l/ the way English does.  But it’s important to note that the nature of this non-distinction differs depending on which language we are talking about.*

You hear perhaps the most striking of these mix-ups among Japanese speakers of English.  The Japanese language has no English-type /l/ or /r/, but rather a single consonant that lies in between the two. It is post-alveolar like an English /r/, but a lateral consonant like /l/. So Scarlett Johansson’s question in Lost in Translation– Why do they switch the “R”s and the “L “s here?–isn’t quite right. Nothing is being ‘switched.’

The Korean language doesn’t technically distinguish between /l/ and /r/; instead, there is an l-type sound and an r-type sound that are allophones of the same phoneme (i.e. alternate pronunciations of the same sound.) So my impression is that Korean speakers can grasp this split a little more easily than Japanese speakers.

Then there are languages that simply have /l/, with no clear equal to English /r/. Such is the case with Cantonese.  Assuming the befuddled carolers from A Christmas Story were native speakers of that language, they would have had little trouble la-la-laing. But if they spoke some other Chinese dialects/languages, then the scene would be (sort of) accurate.  For example, Wu Chinese reportedly has a single r/l-type sound similar to that of Japanese.

The bottom line? The r/l mixup is not exactly a myth, but is still wildly over-generalized. This varies even within dialects of Asian languages (the Southern Vietnamese would probably have no trouble with /r/, but it might vex someone in the North). Specificity is key when discussing a region with hundreds of different languages!

*I’ve confirmed the details with three online sources each: at least one academically inclined website, Omniglot, and as a final back-up, Wikipedia.  There’s a lot of variation within languages and dialects, though, so corrections and exceptions are appreciated.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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31 Responses to An Accent Myth? The East Asian L/R Mix-Up

  1. AL says:

    I’m Chinese American, and I speak Mandarin (but not well). My parents are native Mandarin speakers though.

    I’m not a linguist, but these are my personal, informal observations:

    – Both Mandarin and Cantonese have L at the beginning of a character. I would not expect speakers of these dialects to replace an initial L with an initial R. So, la would not become ra, and lice would not become rice.

    – Mandarin has no ending L, and I don’t think Cantonese does either. So a “dark” L at the end of a word may be realized as an R-ish sound. I think the typical way a Taiwanese speaker says the name of the letter L sounds like “err”.

    – Mandarin has R at the beginning of a character (e.g. the character for person, “ren”). I would not expect a Mandarin speaker (especially from northern mainland China) to replace initial R with initial L. However, speakers from Taiwan may replace this R with an L.

    – Mandarin technically has R at the end of a character in some cases, but this is decidedly not pronounced by some speakers (such as from the southern mainland or Taiwan). Wikipedia has an article on “Erhua” which talks about R-coloring for some speakers of Mandarin.

    I would venture that for Chinese speakers, the R/L question depends in part on whether the letter in question occurs at the beginning or end of a word (or syllable, or character).

    • trawicks says:

      Very interesting, AL. Having spent a very small amount of time in Beijing, I find that final rhotic very prominent in that city. My ears perked up every time I heard it, because it sounds so strikingly similar to American English /-er/. It was also noticeable in the speech of some L2 English speakers: my impression is that a common realization of ‘China’ for Beijing English speakers is something like ‘Chiner.’ For that specific dialect, then, it strikes me that English /r/ would be easier to master, since some type of rhotic can occur word-initially, between vowels, and word finally. Then there are dialects where it appears as an initial consonant but not at the end of syllable, and, of course, dialects where there is no rhotic (or rhoticesque) consonant at all. It really depends.

      • CaitieCat says:

        That final rhotic sound is definitely in my experience of Mandarin speakers as well, though I’m more familiar with the accents of Hong Kong (the area in Toronto where I grew up was strongly settled by Cantonese speakers). Colleagues at various places who were native Mandarin speakers, as well as proofreading clients, all show that intrusive-r (Chiner, idear, Canader, for China, idea, Canada).

  2. m.m. says:

    The bottom line is movies work on generality, so the “l/r mix up” can get extended to any non-native english speakers from asia in many l/r contexts. The multitude of variable non-native pronunciations of english is what poses problems. The easiest thing to do is simplify it /shrug

    • trawicks says:

      Very true. This kind of generalization is even true of European languages. The Polish language has a /w/ sound, like English, yet I’ve heard at least one actor make the assumption that they confuse this with /v/.

  3. Jonathon says:

    I had a Korean roommate in college, and he said that [r] and [l] are really the same sound in Korean. As I remember it, [l] occurs word finally, and [r] occurs elsewhere. So I guess a Korean speaker might have a hard time say “fa la la la la,” just as an English speaker would have a hard time using [ŋ] word initially.

    I also had a Chinese roommate (Mandarin speaking, I believe), and I don’t think he had any trouble with /r/ and /l/. He certainly had no trouble with word-initial /l/—his family name was Lan.

    • trawicks says:

      My understanding is that this l/r phoneme is all over the map at the beginning of a word, yet it seems that Korean speakers can more easily use ‘r’ at the beginning of a word than ‘l.’ This seems to be borne out by the Romanized spelling of English loan words. ‘Penicillin’ is, predictably, ‘penishillin,’ and ‘hairstyle’ is ‘heosutail’ (I’m skipping some diacritics). But ‘laser’ is ‘reijo’ and ‘leader’ is ‘riido.’ I’m just eyeballing Latin orthography here, of course, but it suggests that Korean speakers have a bit more control over which allophone they use in intervocalic positions.

  4. Akira says:

    During the Pacific War, upon encountering an Asian-type, the Allies would have him pronounce “lollapalooza” in the belief that their Chinese collaborators would have little problem with the word while the Nipponese would. So perhaps as a Chinese stereotype it is a more recent innovation.

    Also, the singers may have been Japanese. (WARNING: HEARSAY) A Chinese friend of mine told me that he only has Japanese people as waitstaff, because “their faces are better liked by Western customers, and the Chinese customers like seeing Japanese people serve them”.

    The actors, judging by their names from IMDb, are Chinese: Wong, Wong, Lee (possibly Korean), and Ma. However, they might not speak their forefathers’ tongue given their first names: John, Johan, Fred and Dan.

  5. Sooryan FM says:

    In Malayalam some people pronounce DOLPHIN as DORFIN (with a Scottish R).
    In Brazilian Portuguese, some dialects use the alveolar R for L: Cráudia instead of Cláudia, you can preview it here:

  6. NemaVeze says:

    So Scarlett Johansson’s question in Lost in Translation– Why do they switch the “R”s and the “L ”s here?–isn’t quite right. Nothing is being ‘switched.’

    But if it’s a sound that’s between L and R, and you hear it where you’d expect an L, it sounds like R by comparison with your expectations.

    Something similar happens to native Quechua speakers when they speak Spanish. Quechua has three vowels while Spanish has five. So Quechua speakers use a similar front vowel for both /i/ and /e/ in Spanish, and a similar back vowel for /u/ and /o/. This gives native Spanish speakers the impression that they’re “reversing” the vowels in question. [link]

  7. Iain says:

    This is my first comment on the blog, but I’ve been a fan for a while. Really great stuff here.

    I currently live and work in Japan — I am in my fourth year here, but my history with studying the language and coming to the country for shorter durations goes back about 13 or 14 years. I think one of the things that gives Americans the impression that the Japanesse “reverse” L and R (when in fact Japanese has, as you point out, only one sound corresponding to both, but neither perfectly) is because Japanese speakers of EFL often do reverse these sounds by accident.

    Because of having studied English they are aware that the sounds are in fact supposed to be differentiated, even if they naturally have difficulty sensing the difference between the two. As a result, they make an effort to strongly pronounce one or the other of the letters clearly as opposed to just settling for the Japanese pronunciation — but if their memory fails them as to how the word is spelled (because they can’t necessarily hear the difference themselves) they will correct in the wrong direction by mistake.

    Another interesting result of the Japanese trouble with the English “R” sound is the way it morphs into completely separate sounds in English-origin loan words. Take “iron,” for example — used to describe the size of a golf club, it is rendered aian, whereas used to refer to the appliance used to press shirts and slacks, it is rendered airon, despite coming from the same original English word.

  8. Rei says:

    My mom is Japanese and I’ve spoken Japanese all my life.

    In Japanese hiragana (one of the alphabets), the main sounds that fall between “L” and “R” are “ra,” “ru,” “ro.” It’s basically a very quick snap of the tongue and a very subtle consonant sound, as you mentioned.

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  10. Neil Ang says:

    I live in Singapore and most Chinese people speak Mandarin (forced on by the government) or Hokkien /teochew both of which are southern Chinese dialects. They both have no native r but l’s so it’s still relatively common for people to confuse l’s for r’s not the other way around. So as mentioned in the posts above, there is no word initial l confusion. Where there trouble starts is the final l. It is normally omitted (final would be finer for example) or changed to a w ( full becomes fuw). However the new trend is that in order to sound more hip, a great many young Singaporeans are adding intrusive r’s to everything. So idea and ideal both become idear.

    What I would think is a more interesting phenomenon is the lack of l n distinction which happens in Taiwan as well. Or the lack of k h distinction found among the Hainanese

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  27. Paul says:

    “It’s a gag repeated in countless films and TV shows (albeit less so, thankfully, in a more politically correct era).”

    Thankfully? I miss the old days when people weren’t so politically correct. I think it’s kind of sad that we can’t have fun with things like that anymore.