More on Ls and Rs in Japanese

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As mentioned yesterday, the risk in correcting others is that you get exposed to correction yourself. So it turns out to be -- sort of -- with my comments about the L and R sounds in Japanese. Major point: it remains correct to say, as I did, that Japanese speakers do not "lallate" -- use Ls in place of Rs, and vice versa. Minor refinement! It's not quite right to say, as I also did, that the Japanese phonetic system "has no L sound." Its writing system has only Rs instead of Ls (when represented in the western alphabet), but the sound is more complicated. Representative messages:

"I think it is more accurate to say that Japanese has a single sound that is somewhere in between English 'l' and 'r'.  The Japanese 'r' is certainly not standard US retroflex 'r'.  Say the name "Richard" and feel where your tongue goes (it's back towards the roof of your mouth).  Now say "baseboru" with your best shot at a Japanese accent - you'll find that your tongue is further forward in your mouth and just taps the ridge of your gums.  Now say "Lilly" - your tongue will be even further forward.  The 'r' in 'baseboru' is somewhere in between  "Lilly" and "Richard". " [JF note: this corresponds to my experience in coping with Japanese.]

And, from someone raised in America whose husband was raised in Japan:

"Yeah - they use "R" when they write those syllables in Roman alphabet.  I've learned though that my pronunciation is somewhat less comical to the listener if I pronounce it closer to the English "l" sound.  As best I can make out, the tongue position makes it something of a cross between our "r", "l", and "d".

I believe there is research showing that a newborn is able to "hear" most any of the sounds you can make, but by the time you are 3 or 5 (or somewhere in there) your brain has specialized for the sounds you normally hear.  My husband simply cannot hear the difference between the spoken "l" and "r", because there just aren't those distinct sounds in spoken Japanese.
"

Also, from someone raised in Taiwan:

"I agreed that in Japanese, they spelled both English "L" and "R" with "R". But it will be incorrect to say that they have trouble to pronounce "L". It is actually the other way around, that is, they have trouble pronouncing "R". They simply don't curve their tongues.

"I contribute this mix-up to the mistake they made when they Romanized their language. The ra / ri / ru / re / ro sounds you mentioned actually should be pronounced closer to la / li / lu / le / lo in Japanese. This is the same problem as people in Taiwan called 台北 Taipei instead of Taibei, with the later closer to the Chinese pronunciation and the same with calling 高雄 Kaohsiung instead of Gaohsiung. I am from Taiwan and I still don't understand why they did this....
 
"PS. By the way, I did have a Korean professor who actually "reverses" his L and R every single time."
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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