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Why the Japanese Have Difficulty Pronouncing the Letter ‘L’

Image credit:  http://www,fluentu.com.

Back in the late nineties, when I was still at the school’s external relations arm, the protocol when there were guests was to send them to my office so we could give them a tour of the campus.

One morning, we received three young Japanese men who were guests of some other office. Whatever English all three guests spoke was less than a Filipino toddler’s. Suffice it to say that the morning was always going to be challenging.

Difficult as communicating was, I tried to steer the conversation – if you could call it that – to a topic that I thought all three would be familiar with: the Japanese football league or the J-League. I told them that I really liked the Antlers, one of the J-League’s teams.

All three gave me this dumb monkey look, obviously not connecting with what I was saying.

“Antlers?” I repeated. “Kashima Antlers.”

“Awwww…..!!!” The faces of all three suddenly lit up at the mention of Kashima.

“Kashima Antarah!” they blurted in unison. From the way the three dumb fucks – pardon me – looked at me and then at each other, they all clearly thought that I was the one mispronouncing the word.

How else was I supposed to say Antlers?

Albeit, from the time I was a child, the common stereotypical jibe at the Japanese – likely a carry-over from the last Great War – has always been to mispronounce the ‘l’ as ‘r.’

This has never been a baseless jibe. Indeed, most Japanese people who learn English – or any other language that has both the letters ‘l’ and ‘r,’ for that matter – after childhood have difficulty distinguishing between the two.

Why this is so is a linguistic rather than ethnic matter. Those of Japanese ethnicity who were born and raised in English-speaking countries, for example, and who learn English from childhood have no problems at all with either consonant.

Those born and raised in Japan, however, are the ones who have problems distinguishing between the two. This is because in Nihongo, there is only one liquid consonant. This phonetic term refers to the creation of a sound by partially closing the mouth.

The letters ‘r’ and ‘l’ are examples of these so-called liquid consonants. In Nihongo, the only liquid consonant approximates the ‘r’ more than the ‘l,’ although the sound according to linguists is more a blending of the two.

Thus, the Japanese have a hard time pronouncing the ‘l’ because they do not really hear the sound properly. More accurately, they do not distinguish it from the ‘r’ because as a sound, it is not present in their own native language.

It goes without saying that what they cannot hear, they cannot reproduce.

This may sound extremely weird for most people, but it is no different from, say, Coco Martin, for all the celebrity he enjoys as an actor, still continuing to mispronounce the ‘v’ as ‘b’ and the ‘f’ as ‘p.’

Are you watching FPJ’s Ang Probinsiyano? If you are, and if you have seen Martin in his other projects, then you know what I mean.

Whatever the National Language Commission has to say to the contrary, the truth of the matter is that the sounds ‘v’ and ‘f’ are just not native to Tagalog in its purest form.

Training helps the Japanese eventually learn to distinguish and reproduce the alien ‘l’ sound, just as the ‘v’ and ‘f’ sounds are learned by Filipinos in school.

My own personal hypothesis is that the speaker has to be conscious of the need to reproduce the alien sound because allowing the mind to become unconscious of this need can make the speaker quickly slip into using the more convenient native sound in his own language.

For instance, my Nihongo teacher in college spoke bad English as much as she spoke bad Tagalog. Some days, she would pronounce the word ‘love’ correctly. Other days, she would say ‘rab.’ When she was talking in Tagalog, she was just as wont to say ‘balita’ as much as ‘barita.’

This made our Nihongo class extremely fun; and she took our laughter all in good humour.

For all my familiarity with spoken English, which I started learning as a small kid, particularly when I am talking with a fellow Batangueño, I can still if I am unconscious mispronounce ‘forty’ as ‘porty.’

I know this to be true for many native Tagalog speakers.

So there! To conclude, the Japanese mispronounce the ‘l’ because no such sound exists in their native language; just as many native Tagalog speakers mispronounce the ‘v’ and ‘f’ because these two sounds are really not native to the language either.


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