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Why is it that native speakers of Japanese have a hard time pronouncing "l"? Whenever a western word contains "L" I see that they pronounce it "ru", "ra", "ro", "ri", or "re".

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@AndrewGrimm: It is possible for someone to be born in Japan to Japanese parents, but then move to, say, England shortly thereafter and consequently become more fluent in English than Japanese. As for Chinese and Korean, the root cause is essentially the same: there is no phonemic distinction between rhotics and laterals in those languages. (Mandarin does have a phoneme that is often transcribed as /r/ in addition to a genuine lateral /l/, but /r/ closer to a fricative than an approximant, really...) –  Zhen Lin Nov 6 '12 at 23:41
    
Why do westerners so often sound so awful when speaking Japanese? Because when learning another language, so many people try to learn that language as if it is a direct translation of their own. Sure the words are different and the grammar might be rearranged, but they think it's a direct equivalent. Japanese has fewer sounds than English, yet I've met almost fluent Japanese learners who do not bother imitating the sounds and just speak Japanese with English vowels. Can you imagine how hard it must be for a Japanese person to learn English sounds! There are sooo many more than in Japanese. –  Nathan Sep 2 at 23:52

6 Answers 6

There is a very good article in the Scientific American Mind magazine: http://www.scientificamerican.com/magazine/mind/2014/07-01/ (pages 24-25).

The authors also talk about an experiment that was developed at Carnegie Melon University, which teaches native Japanese speakers to learn the difference between L and R sounds with reinforcement learning.

There is also a free app which utilses the same reinforcement learning technique discovered by the scientist at Carnegie Melon University at: http://www.lirril.co

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so basically, its because in japanese, we do not have the letter L. you dont have to be so technical.

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If you ask a Japanese person to say a word like renraku fast, and then gradually ask them to say it more and more slowly, you will notice that what initially sounded like an r becomes an l as they slow down (usually earlier on for women). So the claim that l and r don't exist is simply wrong -- they both do, but as variants (allophones) of the same sound (phoneme).

If you tell them that they first said an r and then an l, you will surprise the heck out of them as they usually have no idea about this and will probably be unable to tell the difference. The reason is fairly simple: it's the same sound in Japanese. The only difference between the Japanese l and the Japanese r -- not the English r, which is quite different -- is mostly the duration of the contact between the tongue and the roof of the mouth and while this feature allows the two sounds to be distinguished in European languages, it is NOT a distinguishing feature in Japanese.

Similarly, English speakers fail to distinguish many sounds. Some languages have nasal vowels (French, Portuguese, Polish, etc.): when the soft palate is lowered to allow air to pass through the nose as a vowel is produced, it changes a vowel to a nasal vowel and this is a distinguishing feature -- but not in English. So in a word like bank, the a is nasal because it is following by a "ng" sound, and if you ask English speakers what vowel is it, they'll say it's an a, while for a speaker of Portuguese, it's a nasal vowel, not an "a". Another example is how English t, p and k sounds are aspirated (there is a puff of air) at the beginning of words or between vowels, but not after an s, for instance. English speakers usually have no idea about this, but in other languages, such as Korean, aspirated and unaspirated t's are two very different consonants. So if you want some insight into how it feels to not tell l and r apart, ask yourself why you, as an English speaker (if you are), can't distinguish nasality or aspiration.

So the first problem is that Japanese people have a hard time hearing whether an l or an r is being produced because they are two possible realizations of the single phoneme to them, and consequently, they have a very difficult time remembering which is which. You'll find the same thing with z/dz. Ask a Japanese if you should say zettai (with a z) and they'll say yes. Ask again if it's dzettai (with dz) and they'll also say yes. Ask which they prefer and they'll tell you they only heard one pronunciation, even though you clearly said z in one case and dz in the other.

To make matters worse, they start out learning English using the wrong kind of flapped r (as in Spanish or Italian), while the English r is not flapped, but is rather a retroflex r where the tongue is curled back and doesn't touch any part of the mouth. To make matters even worse, the way English words are borrowed into Japanese interferes with their perception of English words, ie. they are spelled in a way that doesn't distinguish l and r (love=rabu), final r's are turned into a's (computer=kompyuutaa), etc. They really need to stop using katakana transcriptions. Note also that the English r involves lip-rounding, but since this isn't used in Japanese -- and they start learning to pronounce English without ever using lip-rounding -- they fail to see this as an important feature of English r.

The second problem is that even if they remember which is which, production is very difficult because the brain is used to treating both sounds as one, and they usually spent a fair bit of their lives as learners of English in a context where you simply said l and r the same and that's how everyone did it. It's a bit like relearning to walk after an injury.

So, while it's true that some Japanese people have a difficult time saying the English r, most can usually make l and r in isolation once they've understood how the sounds work. The biggest problem is that they have a hard time telling l and r apart when hearing it in speech, remembering whether a given word actually has an l or an r (and they often misspell words containing these sounds), and then producing either sound with regularity is ultimately the most difficult exercise.

One final note: to make it easier to explain, I left out some details. For instance, the English l is sometimes curled and English l and r are sometimes devoiced (compare ray and pray). These are small details that also make the sounds harder to produce accurately.

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Sorry, but I fail to see how the fact that you can get speakers to pronounce [l] by forcing them to speak slowly proves that [l] is an allophone of /r/. In order to prove that they are allophones, you would need to show that the two sounds are in complementary distribution, which is not the case. /r/ is always pronounced as a flap in normal spoken satndard Japanese. –  dainichi Nov 7 '12 at 1:44
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"To make matters even worse, the way English words are borrowed ... They really need to stop using katakana transcriptions." Borrowed words are Japanese words, so it's completely natural to write them with the Japanese script. Or do you expect people to write "kimono" with kanji in English text? Using katakana to transcribe pronunciation of English is a different matter, though, and here I tend to agree with you. But the question would be what transcription to use instead. IPA would be quite a steep learning curve. And English spelling is just as misleading as katakana if you ask me. –  dainichi Nov 7 '12 at 2:15
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[l] and [r] are free variation allophones in Japanese -- allophones needn't be in complementary distribution. The fact that /r/ can surface as [l] in slower speech (and more so in certain positions) IS proof that it's an allophone; [r] is undefined for laterality. As for my comment about using katakana, it was poorly worded: I meant that using katakana for words of English origin makes learning them as English words more difficult, and use of katakana when learning English does learners a disservice. English spelling can indeed be misleading, but not when it comes to l and r. –  alexandrec Nov 7 '12 at 14:14
    
I guess it comes down to what we define as "part of Japanese". I acknowledge that some - small kids/anime characters/pop singers while singing/people speaking at an unnatural speed - might pronounce /r/ as [l], but I don't consider this "standard". Yes, I do realize I had my definition of allophone wrong, I didn't realize sounds in free variation were also called allophones. "English spelling can indeed be misleading, but not when it comes to l and r" How do you pronounce "salmon"? –  dainichi Nov 8 '12 at 3:40
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You are right, l is sometimes written but not pronounced, however l and r and never spelled one way and pronounced the other. In that sense, I meant that they aren't misleading. –  alexandrec Nov 8 '12 at 15:19

Because [l] simply isn't in the native phonetic inventory of Japanese. The lack of phones in your native phonetic inventory is the reason for most pronunciation difficulties.

Just to add an observation, though:

When trying to explain the [l] sound to native Japanese speakers, I usually tell them that it's like an [n] sound, except you should point your tongue a bit to allow air to escape on both sides of it. But it seems that this can be harder than it sounds. And thinking about it, no Japanese sound requires you to point your tongue. Doing things with your tongue you're not used to requires muscle training, and native Japanese speakers would probably lack this training.

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l does exist in Japanese, but not as a distinct phoneme (ask a Japanese speaker to say ringo slowly, it should sound like l, especially for women). Furthermore, if you are going to use n as an analogy, it would be to indicate where the tongue is placed, and that place is the same for l, n, d, t, s, z, ts and dz -- all of which are Japanese sounds. –  alexandrec Nov 6 '12 at 14:19
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@alexandrec, there might be spakers who pronounce r in ringo as an [l], but I would definitely consider that a small minority. The Japanese /r/ is usually a postaveolar flap, whereas [l] would be an alveolar lateral. You are right that tongue placement is similar for the consonants you list, since they're all alveolar. I just prefer to use [n] as comparison, since both [n] and [l] are sonorants. –  dainichi Nov 7 '12 at 0:35

The problem with L and R is that niether of them exist in Japanese. The Japanese sound is more of a cross between the English R and L, so it's very difficult to distinguish the two, hence Engrish. A proper hard R is actually just as difficult to pronounce as an L for Japanese speakers, and the hardest words to pronounce are those with both sounds (for example, parallel).

It might be hard to understand from an English speaker's viewpoint, because the difference is as clear as day, but go ahead and try to distinguish the Chinese X and SH

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l and r both exist in Japanese, but they are allophones of a single phoneme. And I'm not sure what a cross between English R and L would sound like, but certainly not what Japanese would pronounce in a word like Engrish. I would downvote, but I think your last comparison with x and sh is valid. –  alexandrec Nov 6 '12 at 14:14
    
@alexandrec: I disagree completely. らりるれろ is neither "la, li, lu, le, lo" nor "ra, ri, ru, re, ro". When trying to pronounce words in English, of course the Japanese try to pronounce R/L not る/り, the same way English speakers try to say かえる not "kaeru". (I guess this applies for serious language learners.) –  silvermaple Nov 6 '12 at 16:14
    
Japanese /r/ can surface as either [l] or [r], but these are not English r or l, if that's what you mean. There are several kinds of l's and r's across languages. –  alexandrec Nov 7 '12 at 14:17
    
@alexandrec, oh...I guess what I mean is "in the context of learning Enlgish", not "in the context of phonetics" heheh :) In that I am way over my head! –  silvermaple Nov 7 '12 at 14:53

The answer here summarises my feelings on the matter as someone who's grown up with both languages:

http://japanese.about.com/blqow13.htm

I'd strenuate the use of the English "L" noise when attempting Japanese words, I've never really understood why learning systems adopted "R's" when "L's" seem closer in sound.

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I don't know why this was downvoted without explanation, but if you could explain a little more that would be helpful :) –  silvermaple Nov 5 '12 at 22:36
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Thanks silvermaple. Perhaps I'm putting unnecessary emphasis on my own view of how "ra" etc. is pronounced. In brief, if I were to explain to an English friend (with little Japanese knowledge) how to pronounce テーブル, I'd most certainly tell her to say ル as lu, rather than ru, not least because it flows better for an English speaker, sounds more similar to "table," and in my opinion sounds more like the Japanese pronunciation. Interestingly though, when I'm intoxicated, I do mix my r's and l's when speaking English which perhaps signifies that I'm less aware of the phonetics then I think! –  Ōkami Nov 5 '12 at 23:29
    
"I've never really understood why learning systems adopted "R's" when "L's" seem closer in sound" -- I'm guessing here you are refering to romaji using r instead of l. Maybe you are thinking about the English r, but generally, the Japanese r sounds the same as r in most other languages, so it does make sense to use r instead of l in romanization systems. –  alexandrec Nov 6 '12 at 14:36

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