Why Can’t Japanese People Say L’s or R’s?

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.

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14 Responses to Why Can’t Japanese People Say L’s or R’s?

  1. 5h says:

    I think the biggest problem with L vs. R pronunciation is that English speakers aren’t aware themselves how they form sounds inside their mouths and aren’t able to teach that properly to students of English. The letter “T” is a good example: in the word “letter”, it’s not pronounced as a “T” but as what’s known in linguistics as a “flap”- which incidentally is what the Japanese “r” comes out sounding like most of the time. If told to pronounce certain “t”s as “r”, their pronunciation improves dramatically. Similarly I’ve found that advising Japanese speakers of English to stick a “u” in before “r”s makes things so much easier for them. In reality, the biggest difference in Japanese vs. English pronunciation is vowels – the Japanese language has 5 simple vowels, whereas English, while only having characters to represent 5 vowels in written language, has something in the range of 20+. But ask any regular English teacher how many vowels there are in English and they’ll say “5”. So if someone is not aware exactly how they are pronouncing something, how can they teach it?
    To illustrate my point, watch this clip from the Jeff Dunham show where an English teacher is trying to teach the Achmed the Dead Terrorist character how to pronounce the world “kill” (at about minute 2):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OBnKxOi5_U
    While he is pronouncing “keel”, her advice is to shorten the vowel when she should be telling him there’s actually 2 vowels there, and if represented in writing as it is pronounced it would look more like “keol”.
    Sorry for the long post but as a former English teacher, linguistics student and Japanese speaker this is something I’ve been trying to spread for a long time!

    • Ryo says:

      Hi 5h, thanks for the comment!
      A Japanese-speaking linguistics majoring former ESL-teacher? Awesome. You’re definitely right about having Japanese people say 「ウ」(“u”) before they attempt the English R.
      Well let me ask you: I remember having debates about pronunciation with words like “steal,” “style,” or “stall.” I’m not sure if by two vowels you meant syllables (when you were talking about Achmed’s word “kill”), but would you agree that these three words all have the same amount of syllables?

      • 5h says:

        They have the same amount of syllables, but different sounds crammed into one syllable. In my native language of Spanish (which uses the same vowels as Japanese) we have certain words where two vowels are contained within a syllable and we are very conscious of this because it affects the rules of accentuation which we learn in school. We call it”diptongo” ( in English it’s diphthong, although very few people know what it means).
        steal (stee-oll), style (sty-oll) and stall (stawll) all have one syllable but two vowels

        • Ryo says:

          I only know of the concept of “diptongo/dipthong” from what I’ve learnt about linguistics in psychology studies, and other language-learning courses. But I’ve never heard such a discrimination like you’re saying between vowels and syllables. If that’s the case, and you quantify “stall” as you do “style,” then what is an example of a word with one syllable and one vowel?

          • 5h says:

            Pretty much any word/syllable in Japanese or Spanish. If you have any Spanish speaker around you, ask them to read out “stal” and listen closely: there is no gliding “aw” sound like there is in English “stall”, just an “a”. In would say most English words require more than one vowel symbol to represent in IPA

            This is not something you would have heard of from an English teacher or even anything that English-speakers would ever be aware they are doing unless they learn in-depth about phonetics. I don’t think anyone refers to English gliding vowels as diphthongs but the concept is handy in explaining the more-than-one-vowel-to-a-syllable concept.

  2. Mitja says:

    I come from Slovenia, an eastern european slavic country. I have to say that my experience with english people hearing our level of english (which is quite good) is different. I haven’t met anyone that was not impressed with Slovenian general knowledge of english. I have never heard “Is that all you can say…?” We do have more contact with people from UK than USA, but the americans are impressed too.
    In my opinion the best way to teach englich is to watch tv and movies with subtitles, not with “lip-sync”. I have noticed that because in Italy or Germany most of tv, movies and games are translated so you cannot hear english, the general knowledge of english is lower.

  3. six8ten says:

    While teaching at the conversation schools a few years ago, I got the impression that a lot of my students couldn’t hear the difference between an L or an R sound, or distinguish between vowels that don’t exist in Japanese. I had an entire class that swore the words “hat”, “hot”, “hut”, “heart”, and “hurt” sounded exactly the same.

    As for laughing at English mistakes (Or “Engrish” as a couple of websites devoted to them call it), turnabout is fair play when laughing at weird kanji mistakes (particularly when used in tattoos- websites out there devoted to that as well). I did find it funny a few times when a mistake changed the meaning of the sentence- not because of the mistake itself. For example:

    A student once wrote in her journal that she went to a baseball game. The fans were not cheering for any particular team, but for good plays overall. She illustrated this by writing that “A player hit a home run, and everyone in the audience stood up and crapped their hands.” This gave me a far different mental image than she had intended.

    Another student once wrote that weeds were “glowing” in her garden. The school was in the midst of getting ready for the Halloween party, so maybe glowing things fit.

    Before a trip to the US, a student gave me a card telling me to “Have a nice fright”. I prefer my airplane trips fright-less.

    Adding in vowel confusion with the L and R, and the words “arrogant” and “elegant” become too similar for safety (Japanese equivalent: kirei and kirai. A slight difference in pronunciation is the difference between making someone happy and very angry).

    As you mentioned, there is definitely a tendency to be over-impressed (at first) with a small amount of Japanese. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told my Japanese is excellent when the extent of the conversation with that person was to say “good morning” in Japanese as we pass on the sidewalk. Which is probably better than having them speak really loudly and slowly at me as if I were deaf, which still seems to be the stereotype of many Westerner’s attempts to communicate with non-English speakers.

  4. Joanne K. says:

    Not the throw a wrench into your theory but any language learner will have difficulty acquiring the phonemes (the smallest sound in any language) of a new language based on the age of the learner and the stages of phonological development.

    When we are born we start to babble away (phonemic expansion). We soon learn that some sounds are needed in our language and some are not needed (phonemic contraction). In Japanese, the English phonemes are not in needed so the English phonemes are not retained.

    If you look at the site below you will find two charts. The first one is a chart of English phonemes. The second chart lists the stages of phonological development.

    http://sssfcenglish.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/phonological-acquisition/

    If you look at the site below you will see the list of phonemes in Japanese. You may notice that the “l” is missing in the Japanese language.

    http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301146/Japanese-language/75180/Phonemes

    Have you ever noticed a family new to the United States? After a few years the 5 year old will be able to speak English and the language of the home without accents. The pre-teen will have a little bit of an accent but the teenager and parents will still have an accent based on the phonemes of the first language.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi Joanne,
      I’m not sure if you really read my post (despite you saying that you threw a wrench in my theory) because you and I essentially agree on the linguistic differences. You provided no evidence to suggest anything I wrote was wrong at all.

      This article is to inform English speakers (particularly monolingual ones) who have been confused about hearing L’s/R’s from Japanese people. Simply saying “anyone can learn it if they start early enough” is obvious and doesn’t really solve or explain anything. In my opinion, it was really just needless to say (i.e., of course age has a major impact on language learning). But for ESL learners who don’t have the benefit of starting early enough, this article remains as an explanation of L’s and R’s for Japanese people.

      If you’re interested in learning about language learning and other cultural changes that occur when children move to a new culture, you should check out my recent post on Third Culture Kids: http://skeptikai.com/2013/08/19/third-culture-kids-and-hybrid-cultures/
      Anyways, thanks for the comment, Joanne!

  5. Joanne K. says:

    Oops…

    In Japanese, some of the English phonemes are not in needed so they are not retained.

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  7. Lance says:

    This is not universal among Japanese or Chinese. If a word begins with L, such as long (Chinese for dragon), no problem whatsoever. If it ends with L, such as ball, a bit of a problem for maybe half of all Far Easterners. If the word ends with L and a consonant, such as cold or felt, it is nearly impossible for half of them, and the L tends to become like W, “cowd” and “fewt” The TH sound is even more difficult, since there is no TH sound in either language. Some westerners also have problems with L, such as Ira Glass (host of This American Life or as he says it “Wife”. Among British speakers are some who pronounce R at the end of a word, those who only pronounce R at the end if a word follows that one beginning with a vowel sound and even add an R to words that have none if the following word starts with a vowel sound (Chinar is big…). Some British speakers cannot pronounce any R at all, so they sound like the reporter Babewa Walters.

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