Most Westerners who come into contact with Japanese people first wonder why they can’t seem to pronounce R’s and L’s. Those who are around them more often tend to observe that they actually can pronounce them, but they always mix them up. Neither of these assumptions are totally accurate. In order to understand the confusion with these English letters, we have to know a bit about the Japanese language.
Alphabet vs. Syllabary
In Japanese, we’re not dealing with an alphabet. Languages like English, French, and Spanish all have alphabets. It’s an important distinction because alphabets have letters that usually automatically make a sound. For example, the letter “M” makes a sound that’s made by softly closing your lips together, as opposed to the more harsh “P” sound.
In Japanese, however, there is no such thing as “m” or “p” sounds on their own. Japanese people can of course make those sounds, but they are always and only attached to vowels. At least, that’s how it works in the eyes of English-speakers. Japanese characters come from a syllabary – a language that uses characters to make syllables, which connect into words – not an alphabet. This means that Japanese people cannot make a stand-alone “m” sound or “p” sound, as in the English letters, without practice. Why? Because they don’t exist in Japanese. Therefore, consonants (i.e., a linguistic concept that doesn’t exist in Japanese) are only ever used with the five vowel sounds (a, i, u, e, o). So you won’t hear a “mm” sound, but you’ll always be able to hear someone say these five m-related sounds: “ma, mi, mu, me, mo.”
Naturally, not all sounds used in English are used in Japanese (and vice versa); so some of the characters of the English alphabet are not used (such as “x” or “q”) when typing in Japanese. When using English letters for Japanese, almost everyone uses the “R” character and drops the “L” from romaji, but the truth of the matter is that neither R nor L exist in Japanese. The sounds signified are usually written as “ra, ri, ru, re, ro,” but these aren’t the same “r” as the ones we use in English. In reality, these sounds are more like a hybrid, or a sound that lies between the phonemic spectrum of L and R.
In other words, the Japanese sounds I just described (ra, ri, ru, re, and ro) are made by using one’s tongue a certain way. Those tongue movements so happen to be different from the way English speakers use their tongue when pronouncing L’s or R’s (i.e., the picture above), which is why English speakers butcher the Japanese language when they try to speak it. So monolingual English and Japanese speakers generally can’t pronounce each other’s L/R-like sounds because they have absolutely no practice in each other’s languages.
The Confusing Experience
If you can’t imagine what it’s like for Japanese people learning English, picture this: You’re learning a new language in which you’re told to make a “ch” sound, like “chair” or “change.” But when you make it, you’re told that it’s wrong. All your life, you have used this sound the same way, but now they say it’s totally unrecognizable in this new language. In one case when you say “ch,” you’re supposed to keep your tongue down flat, while in the other, your tongue is to be raised inside your mouth. The way you’re doing it now could be mistaken for either one, so it’s not good enough. And when you see those two foreign characters for that “ch” sound, you can’t remember which sound is which. So what do you do? You just guess. This is essentially what it’s like for Japanese people with R’s and L’s.
Also, since Japanese people often guess with these two perplexing letters, it’s possible that many Westerners who hear them overestimate how many times they make mistakes. That’s simply because instances where they are correct may not be as noticeable as when they’re wrong. Obviously the conversation doesn’t stop when there are no mistakes, but when something’s wrong, it’s very noticeable. This may play a role, depending on the English speaker, making it seem like the Japanese person mixes the letters up slightly more than they actually do.
Without practice, Japanese people can’t pronounce L’s or R’s, but most people have English exposure from a young age. The ones who try hard or have an interest usually have little or no problem being able to say these English consonants by the time they’re adults. The rest of them (i.e., most of them) struggle because the Japanese language is not set up to be able to make those sounds. By the time they leave high school, most Japanese people haven’t had enough exposure to learn the correct pronunciation, and most don’t continue learning English after that.
Excuses & Explanations
So why can’t Japanese people say L’s and R’s? Well, it’s not because it’s impossible for them. There are two reasons which I consider “bad excuses,” plus one I consider legitimate. The bad excuses are: 1) Japanese is a very different language which doesn’t lend itself well to English pronunciation; 2) Japanese simply doesn’t have an L or R sound, so it’s no wonder they can’t say them. These are bad excuses because they don’t really explain why an average Japanese-person takes so much more time to learn a proper English accent than vice versa.
The good excuse is this: The English education in Japan does not prepare them for speaking English. So I hope it won’t also be a bad excuse to say: It’s not their fault.
Sadly, Westerners treat foreigners (not just Japanese people) who are learning English quite impatiently, which is a shame. As I’m sure you can tell, I don’t hesitate to say that the English education in Japan is absolutely awful, and they are in dire need of reform; but I prefer the way the average Japanese person treats foreigners who try to speak Japanese. They are often very easily (or overly) impressed, but that’s better than the general experience of Westerners who have the attitude of “Is that all you can say…?”
So the next time you hear someone with a thick foreign accent speaking in English, just remember that their language might be quite phonemically incompatible with your language (i.e., English). And really, if they’re trying to make an effort to speak it, the least we can do is help them along the way.