Why Do Many Asian Languages Mix Up ‘R’ and ‘L’?
When I was a kid in a much less politically correct world, I used to love watching ‘Get Smart’ episodes after school. There was a Chinese villain in the series named ‘The Claw’ who had a claw for a hand who would always end up in crazy back and forth ‘Who’s on first’ like discussion trying to establish whether or not the villain’s name was ‘Claw’ or ‘Craw’.
While it might have been funny (for the time), the whole issue of ‘r’ and ‘l’ is a fascinating one when it comes to learning many Asian languages. It’s also a very important one to understand for English as a Second Language teachers who feel like they are getting nowhere when it comes to coaching the English ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds to Asian students. The issue actually extends to the letter ‘n’ too – and and many languages across Asia, there are interesting rules that have come about to govern the use of these sounds. Native speakers of Thai, Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Cantonese and other Southern Chinese dialects have particular issues when it comes to pronouncing the English ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds.
Whether you are learning another language or you’re teaching English as a second language, it’s really important to understand exactly what your own mouth is doing (native English speakers) when you pronounce these sounds in your own language. You might be surprised. Once you do that and realise what’s really going on, it is then much easier to observe what is going on in the mouths of native speakers of other languages and either model your mouth on theirs as you learn their language, or coach them to train the muscles in their mouth to make the shift from their natural way of producing those sounds in their own language, to pronouncing more familiar sounds in English.
I have put this clip together to shine some light on what the ‘L’ is happening in our mouths when we pronounce ‘l’ and ‘r’, so that you can then start to either change it so you sound more ‘native’ in various Asian languages, or help you coach non-native English speakers into pronouncing the English sounds correctly.