Why Do Many Asian Languages Mix Up ‘R’ and ‘L’?

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.

Stuart Jay Raj is a polyglot who specializes in the languages and dialects spoken in South East Asia and China. His talents have allowed him to earn a professional living as a simultaneous interpreter in Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Indonesian, among others, providing language and cultural training for multinational companies in the region and hosting his own TV programme on Thailand's Channel 5. He holds a degree in Cognitive and Applied Linguistics from Griffith University and has become an expert in the field of language acquisition with a strong track record of success. Stuart's background knowledge of Sanskrit, Khmer, Lao and various Chinese dialects and minority languages enables him to present a fascinating and unique perspective on the Thai language which makes everything fall logically into place.
  • Serge Gorodish

    Hmmm… I’m a native English speaker (American) and my tongue does NOT protrude when I say “lip.” The point of articulation in “pill” and “lip” is essentially identical–just behind the front teeth. Tongue never protrudes past the teeth except to articulate “th”.

    I think I just learned something about Australian accents.

  • Dried Peanuts

    Yep pill and lip identical for me. Trying to think of where I use different ls in english

    • StuartJayRaj

      Interesting – where is your ‘English’ from. Fascinating to hear about the variations.

      • Dried Peanuts

        I’m irish. You’ve actually had me going “boil-bail-lip-lid-lily-lilt” all day to myself.

        Came across these two estuary speakers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fu15XOF-ros

        Think this is what you are talking about

        • Idan

          Yep, Irish English lacks “Dark L” (or so I was told by my Dublin-born phonetics/phonology tutor), so that would explain the lack of distinction for you.

  • PePas

    It seem for most English speakers the tongue is in the same position. But there is a clear difference in sound. Our just-turned-four native English speaking son is going through a phase (that his 2 older siblings never went through…) of using only the Lip kind of L, also at the end of the word, so his weLL and baLL sound funny..! The ending L is supposed to be almost like a W, somewhat like oWL, and in the end the tongue barely touches (if at all, depending on your accent). The starting L touches much longer & stronger.