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A Rittre Expranation

2010 February 5

The generic Asian stereotype accent in Western culture involves flipping l’s and r’s, often with hilarious consequences. It’s not exactly true that all Asians do this, but it has some grounding in reality: Japanese speakers often mispronounce l’s and r’s. In fact, it’s a mark of a high-level Japanese English learner that they “swap” them at all. Neither sound natively exists in the Japanese language, and both require lots of practice to pronounce distinctly from the Japanese sound transcribed as r.

I’m no linguist, but a couple semesters of phonetics and using the International Phonetic Alphabet have really helped me understand why my students can’t make certain sounds, and what I myself might be saying wrong in Japanese.

Native English speakers, pronounce “rock”. Now do it again, paying close attention to your mouth movements. Most of you will feel the tip of your tongue curl slightly back. This is the alveolar approximant, written in IPA as an upside-down r, [ɹ]. The sound is alveolar because your tongue is reaching for the alveolar ridge, the hump in the top of your mouth just behind your teeth. It’s an approximant because, rather than actually touching the ridge and restricting airflow, the tongue is only slightly changing shape.


Half of English speakers depress the tip of their tongue slightly instead of curling it. This is not connected with any accent and sounds exactly the same. I find I’m about 50-50 myself, depending on how much I enunciate.

Now let’s try making the Japanese r. Native English speakers, pronounce “city”. Now, say it at normal speed without overenunciating. Try putting it in a sentence like you’re speaking to a friend. “Let’s go to the city.”

You’ll probably find that, at slow speeds, your tongue makes the t sound by hitting the front of the alveolar ridge, just behind the teeth, and cutting off air for a second. But when you go faster, this stop becomes more of a flapping motion. And rather than hitting just behind the teeth, you’re probably moving further back, touching the lowest part.


This is basically the same sound as the Japanese r. A native Japanese speaker unfamiliar with English might transcribe your native speed “city” as シリ- “shi-ri” (“si” doesn’t exist natively in Japanese either). The consonant in either case is an alveolar flap or tap, written in IPA as a fishhook, [ɾ]. It’s the same sound that makes the short r in languages like Spanish. A rolled or trilled r (IPA upright r, [r]) happens when this flap is repeated, which is why the manliest of Japanese men will often roll their r’s.

So where does the l fit in here? Native English speakers, pronounce “lock”. You’re probably touching your teeth with your tongue, if not putting it between them and sticking it out a little bit. l (written the same in IPA) is the alveolar lateral approximant. It happens somewhere in the region of the alveolar ridge or the teeth, it involves only the tongue changing shape rather than cutting off air (like with the English r), and the lateral part means that it’s actually the sides of the tongue controlling the airflow. You’ll feel them depress slightly in the middle as you make that l.


Actually, English has two types of l’s. l’s at the beginning of a word involve only what I described above and are called “clear” or “light” l’s. If you pronounce the word “call”, on the other hand, you’ll feel the front of your tongue move back slightly as the back of your tongue, the root, moves up toward the roof of your mouth. This is the “dark” l, written in IPA as l with a tilde through it, [ɫ]. Dark l exists in English only after vowels, so we don’t distinguish it from clear l. In other languages, dark l and clear l are totally separate sounds that have to be distinguished just as much as b and d in everyday speech. This would be a problem for most English speakers, especially those few who only use dark l’s – if you’ve ever wondered why Tom Brokaw’s speech is so distinctive, it’s because his l’s are always dark, even at the beginning of a word where an average speaker would pronounce a clear l!


Japanese doesn’t have any sounds involving the tongue touching or projecting through the teeth, so sounds involving teeth are the hardest for Japanese English speakers to make. Things like “th” (both kinds – isn’t there a difference between “the” and “teeth”?), “l”, “v”, and even “f” are difficult. There is a sound transcribed “f” in Japanese, but it’s actually closer to an “h”, as I’ve learned while improving my Japanese pronunciation. English speakers, pronounce this series: ha, hee, hoo. Your mouth feels most open at ha, and as you move to hoo, it tightens, yes? You also probably rounded your lips at “hoo”. If you pronounce “hoo” with relaxed lips instead of round ones, you’re making the Japanese ふ, usually transcribed “fu”. It’s a similar sound, but English speakers saying “foo” (as in Fighters) would touch their upper teeth to their lower lip and blow air through the gap, while Japanese speakers simply blow air through narrow lips.

There’s your crash course in English versus Japanese phonology, everyone! Again, my disclaimer is that I’ve only had two semesters of this stuff, so I’m no expert, just using my own notes/memory from the class plus the Internet as a reference. I am probably off on some details – for example, Wikipedia tells me that the Japanese r is classified by a Japanese linguist as an alveolar lateral flap, just that Americans hear it as the alveolar flap (since we have that in English). The point of pointing any of this out, though, is not to strut my stuff linguistically speaking. Understanding the mechanics of these sounds – where the tongue goes, how the lips are positioned, and so on – is key to teaching them to people whose native language doesn’t include them (like l in Japanese) or doesn’t recognize them as distinct (“clear” versus “dark” l in English; also rounded “oo” versus unrounded “oo”, which we experimented with but didn’t explain). I have some friends studying Japanese in America who will probably find it useful to practice れ versus re and ふ versus hoo or foo. Friends teaching English here in Japan may also find the mechanical explanations here useful in improving the pronunciation of their students, maybe even their teachers. And if any native Japanese speakers out there are とくい enough at English to have made it through this, you can now practice some very difficult sounds. 頑張りましょう! Let’s give it our best!

Thanks to Macquarie University’s Linguistics department for having some excellent phonetic cross-sections of approximants easily accessible from Google Image Search. 🙂

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