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The Terror of L and R

Keiichiro Sugimoto from Japan

This story written by Keiichiro Sugimoto was translated from Japanese into English by students in Timothy Mossman's Interpreting and Translating 200 Class, at Canadian International College, North Vancouver, Canada. It was edited by Timothy Mossman.

It's tough for Japanese to pronounce L and R, isn't it? If your response is, "Well, not really," you must either be a super fluent speaker of English or a person who has lived abroad in your childhood. Otherwise, it's probably fair to say you are just a beginner who hasn't yet felt the wrath of L and R.

It's very difficult for Japanese to recognize the difference between L and R because these sounds fall into the Ra, Ri, Ru, Re, Ro liquids1 category in Japanese. Therefore, in Japanese both L and R are pronounced as one phoneme, but in English L and R are two distinct phonemes.

So, native English speakers often wonder why Japanese can't distinguish L from R. Also, comedians often use this L-R problem as a model of a typical Japanese accent as material for their jokes. I find any joke based on race to be disgusting, but what makes me feel worse is that it is a fact I can do nothing about.

Here's a story about a time when I went to a sports bar to watch baseball with a few buddies from work and my boss, who had just arrived from Japan. On this day Nomo was the starting pitcher in the all-star game, so we decided to watch the game over a few beers. We felt like having an appetizer of steamed clams, so I ordered.

Me: "We'd like steamed clam." Waitress: "OK Crab." Me: "No. No. Clam!" Waitress: "You want crab, right?" Me: No! Claaaam, please! Waitress: ??? Then I pointed to clam the menu. Waitress: "Oh! Clam!" Me: "What the $#@!'s the difference?"

I had been living in the United States for two years and I was beginning to feel more confident with my English. However, this incident dealt a real blow to my confidence. What's worse, it happened right in front of my boss. The waitress could have understood me, it seems, because "Clam" ends in "m" and "Crab" ends in "b" . But she didn't. I think the reason for her confusion was that my pronunciation of L sounded like R to her.

Since this incident, I've developed an "L phobia." Also, other Japanese people's pronunciation of L has started to catch my attention: " Ooo, that guy's L is terrible!" "Yikes! She's pathetic, too!" "Wow! That fellow's L is really good. I bet he's been living in the US for a long time!" Since then, I've been trying to pronounce my Ls correctly, but it's not easy. When I try to speak fluently, my L sounds like R and when I try to say L correctly, my words do not flow.

It's hard to free myself from this dilemma. I memorize English vocabulary in my head by arranging them according to katakana. Therefore, when I speak English, I change the words that I arranged in katakana to make them sound like English using an "English-Sounds program".

In Japanese, there is only one "liquid" phoneme-the Japanese "R sound"--ra, ri, ru, re, ro-which is used for both L & R. Thus, I mix L & R words up because my memory cannot avoid losing data of L and R in the process of input. To pronounce L correctly, you need to move your tongue forward and place your tongue between the back of your front teeth and upper jaw-just like the pronunciation of Th. The Japanese language does not have any sound requiring this kind of tongue movement, so it may be one of the factors which brings L trouble to us.

Actually, quite a few Americans studying Japanese think that the Ra line (ra, ri, ru, re, ro) is difficult to pronounce. Don't you think that's interesting? My friend, Tim, (not Tim Mossman--a different Tim) worked as an English teacher for a Prefectural Board of Education in Japan. He traveled around teaching English conversation at some Junior High and Senior High schools. He is quite proficient at Japanese, but admitted that the has difficulty pronouncing the Ra (ra, ri, ru, re, ro) and Da (da, ji, zu, de, do) lines.

One day, when Tim returned from teaching at TOIDE Junior High School, one of the office assistant asked him, "Where was your class today?" Tim: "I went to TOIDE." (the Japanese word for toilet is TOIRE) Assistant: "Where? Did you go to the toilet (TOIRE)? I mean, which school did you go to today?" Tim: "TOIDE." Assistant: "TOIRE??? Oh, good grief!" It's not easy to learn a foreign language is it? Hang in there everyone!  :-)

1 Liquid: A phoneme (speech sound) categorized as a liquid means that "there is some obstruction of the airstream in the mouth, but not enough to cause any real constriction or friction. The reason why speakers in languages with only one liquid tend to use that sound for a substitute for the sound that does not occur in their language is because of the acoustic similarity of these sounds."

More translated stories: How to Have Soup | A Sandwich Story

Keiichiro Sugimoto explains why he wrote the stories:
Helping People Understand Each Other

Timothy Mossman writes:
The CIC-Keiichiro Connection: A Translation Project

Return to: Translating Keiichiro's Stories | Issue 15 | Home Page

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