Why some Asian accents swap Ls and Rs in English
November 6, 2019
There’s a saying in Hong Kong kung fu movies: “Wai faai bat po.” It means “only speed is unbreakable.” “Wai faai bat po.” That’s in Cantonese, a language with tones, which English speakers have trouble distinguishing.
So when an American says that phrase with the wrong tones— “wifi bat po”—you
get a Cantonese meme. “It became kind of a joke that people will
send to each other. It’s like oh, this bad-ass wifi is so good. “Wai faai bat po.” It’s
quite funny. If English is your first language though,
you might be more familiar with a different joke: “Supplies!” That’s the notion that East Asians mix up
their Rs and Ls in English: “Oh herro prease.” It’s a running gag in Lost in Translation, an Oscar-winning film about two Americans
who are sad in Japan. “Lat pack. You know lat pack?” “Rat?
Rat pack.” The movie makes communication with the locals
seem hopeless. “Hey. Lip my stocking.” “Hey? Lip them?” And at one point Scarlett Johansson’s character asks: “Why do they switch the Rs and the L’s here?” “Oh, for yucks.” This movie may be a bit rrrrr— rude, but it’s not a terrible question to ask.
Because if you’re genuinely curious, a foreign accent gives us chance to learn something
about another language. So this trope has been applied to Japanese,
Korean, and Chinese speakers. “McFry!” “Herro.” “Fa ra ra ra ra.” But, all of these languages deal with Rs and Ls in different ways. First though, we need to talk about the R sound in English. It turns out that there isn’t
just one way to pronounce it. “Oh it’s incredibly varied.” Eleanor Lawson uses ultrasound to study English phonetics.
“You have trilled r’s which are sort of a rrr sound. You can probably hear my tapped
r. So I do a ara sound. Varied. You can have a retroflex R where your tongue essentially
curls upside down under your palatal arch. “Run. Run.”
She says the bunched-r, which is common in North American english, is particularly complex. “Nurse. Nurse.” Say the word fur. Fur. How would you tell
someone where to put their tongue to make that R? The middle of the tongue rises up in the mouth, while the root of the tongue is pulling backwards. You might have some lip rounding as well. R sounds like this, where the air flow isn’t
blocked by the tongue or the lips, are called “approximates” in phonetics. “So forming all of these structures at the same time could be very difficult for someone
who is not used to producing that.” The r-sound is one of the last consonants
that english-speaking kids learn to say. It takes up to 5 adorable years for them to figure
it out. “Purple. And red” And the L-sound in English can change depending on its position in a word. Say the words “ladle”
or “level.” That first L is a “clear L.” You can probably
feel your tongue touching the top of the mouth, right behind your front teeth. As in “led.”
But the l at the end of the word is a “dark L,” where the tip of the tongue might not
even touch top of your mouth at all. “A dark L is where the back of the tongue
is moving up toward the soft palate and it gives it an o-ish sound like an “Uhh O”. “Level.”
“Level.” So the English R and L are complicated, but
still, “Lat Pack,” rrr, llll– they seem like pretty different sounds. It might help to look at Spanish – say the word salero. “Salero. Salt Shaker.” “Salero”
“Salero” This R is made with a flap of the tongue on
the ridge behind the front teeth – that’s not too far away from where the L is pronounced. Japanese has that R-sound. It doesn’t have
the lll in “lake” or the rrr in “red.” “We have ra ri ru re ro, which sounds kind
of similar to both L and R.” Those are the 5 syllables in Japanese that
contain the tongue-flap sound: “ra ri ru re ro” Try saying them: “ra ri ru re
ro.” When they’re converted into the Latin alphabet,
they’re spelled like this, with the letter “r”. But the Japanese R-sound is actually
closer to our L-sound “la” than it is to the english “ra.”
“My name is Mariko and for all my english-speaking friends, their intuition to say is marie-ko.
And how I explain to them is just imagine my name spelled with M-a-l-i-k-o and you should
be fine. When words migrate from English to Japanese,
both Rs and Ls become Japanese Rs. “Garasu.” “Karendaa.” “Boringu.” “Raito.” There are thousands of these loan words that Japanese speakers have to relearn with rrrs
and llls, which are two sounds that Japanese ears weren’t tuned to distinguish in the first
place. Like Japanese, Korean doesn’t have the English
rrr sound. They have this letter. It’s “rieul.” “leer?” “lee-ul.” “lee-er.” “Ul.” “Ul. Lee-ul.” “Like my tongue is going straight up to the roof of my mouth. Ul. “Rieul.”
It takes on a different sound depending on its position within the word.
So when it’s followed by a vowel, it has the flap sound like a Japanese R. “Duriseo.
Duriseo.” That also means it’s written with the letter “r” when converted into Latin
script. “Duriseo.” But when it’s at the end of a word or is followed by a consonant,
it sounds more like an L-sound and it’s transcribed in the Latin alphabet as “L”. So it’s pretty unlikely that Korean speakers would say “herro” since their L-sound
can map on to the english L. But the “dark L” doesn’t exist in Korean.
So when they’re new to english, Koreans might to use their own L sound in spots
where we would use a dark L, near the end of words. “As the story unfolds, someone
may change the world.” There are at least 8 major Chinese languages,
but we’ll look at Mandarin and Cantonese. They both have a clear L sound. And it’s
restricted to the beginning of syllables. “Leng. It’s like ‘pretty.’” “La. ‘drag.’” So the notion that they would switch “fa la la” into “fa ra ra” is just wrong and
the makers of a Christmas story should feel bad. Like Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese don’t have the dark L sound as in “pull”. But
when they come across an L near the end of a word in english, they tend pronounce it
more like a vowel. “A hundred years old, 90 years old. I said
we should respect this kind of people.” “He chose the coldest possible. Really.” Mandarin does have an r sound. At the beginning of a syllable it sounds like this: “zrr. zrr.
So like actually, maybe the R sounds more like the S in “treasure.” zrr Rènxìng.” And at the end of a syllable: “er.” It means “son.” Cantonese, on the other hand, doesn’t have an R sound at all. So when speaking English,
they sometimes use a w sound, or an L sound. “We just tried very hard to prove ourselves.” Our ability to produce sounds in a new language
depends in part on whether those sounds are meaningfully distinct in our first language.
So a Japanese speaker hearing lll and rrr — it’s a lot like an English speaker hearing
tones in Chinese. “Leng. Leng. Leng. Leng.” “Ma. Ma. Ma. Ma. Yeah I know, people’s minds
just blown away.” We all carry the rules of our native language
with us when we learn new languages. “Accent is your identity. So I don’t want
to sound like an American person or British person.” So if you hear a foreign accent, remember that it’s a unique hybrid, it’s like a lion with
stripes — something you can only get if you’re brave enough to venture beyond the comfort
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