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Why Do Some Asian Accents Swap Ls and Rs in English?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2019

Asian speakers switching their Rs and Ls is an old Hollywood trope that you may have seen in movies like A Christmas Story, Lethal Weapon 4, and even Lost in Translation. In this video, Joss Fong explains where that linguistic stereotype comes from and how it does and doesn’t apply to speakers of different Asian languages.

A foreign accent is when someone speaks a second language with the rules of their first language, and one of the most persistent and well-studied foreign-accent features is a lack of L/R contrast among native Japanese speakers learning English.

It’s so well-known that American soldiers in World War II reportedly used codewords like “lallapalooza” to distinguish Japanese spies from Chinese allies. But American movies and TV shows have applied this linguistic stereotype to Korean and Chinese characters too, like Kim Jong Il in Team America: World Police, or Chinese restaurant employees singing “fa ra ra ra ra” in A Christmas Story.

However, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese are completely different languages that each handle L-sound and R-sounds differently. In this episode of Vox Observatory, we take a look at each language and how it affects pronunciation for English-language learners.

See also A Phonetic Map of the Human Mouth.