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.