Chinese having trouble with the "L" sound: basis of this stereotype?

Why, in movies, TV shows, etc., are the Chinese portrayed as having trouble pronouncing "L"s? I’m sure we’re all familiar with the scene in A Christmas Story where the Chinese waiters sing the chorus of "fa ra ra ra ra"s, as well as many other examples that have become cultural currency (“Herro”; the “That’s ridicurous” exchange on Seinfeld). But, as far as I can tell, “L” is a common sound in Chinese - think of the names “Lee” (or “Li”), “Lao Tzu”, etc. I understand “R” is not a common Chinese sound, but that makes the whole “fa ra ra”/“ridicurous” thing stupid - why would they replace a sound they have no trouble making with one that’s not part of their language? Are there actually examples of this kind of trouble with "L"s among Chinese speakers, or is it a Hollywood fabrication? My girlfriend’s family, who are from Hong Kong, have no trouble with “L” sounds, though they speak Cantonese, so maybe it’s different with Mandarin. But it seems to me it’s just some vaguely racist shorthand used for comedic effect. Any ideas?

The L and R sounds in English don’t exist in most Chinese dialects, as well as Japanese. Chinese people who learn English as adults have a great deal of difficulty telling the difference, because the only sound that they’re used to is one that comes somewhere between L and R.

That’s my understanding also. For every ethnic routine/joke in English in which Asian folks can’t do “L” and substiture “R” (oh, herro, friend! Ha, I surprise you, make you brink!), there’s one where Asian folks can’t do “R” and substitute “L” (oh, hello, fliend! Ha, I sooprlise you, make you blink!)

The consonant they do have is sort of midway between, and they probably have difficulty hearing much diff between the two; as for us, anything not distinctively the expected one gets heard as the misplaced other (or often enough to fuel the stereotype).

The consonant is somewhere between an “L”, and “R”, and a “Y”.

You may see Koreans with the family name “Lee”, “Yi”, or “Rhee”.
Back in Korea, they all have the same name. It’s just that English-speakers have three different ways to attempt to write it.

Just a nitpick (although the current answers should provide the explanation), but it was the Western perception that Japanese could not pronounce the /L/ sound, (giving rise to the use of “Wee Willie Winkie” and “lollipop” as WWII passwords) and the Chinese who are perceived to be unable to pronounce /R/ (giving rise to the bad jokes involving “flied lice”).

The Japanese actually have a phoneme that is sufficiently close to /R/ that it is used to transliterate the name given to many Japaese ships: maru.

Don’t know about Chinese, but that’s absolutely correct for Japanese. If you’re expecting one, it sounds like the other. If you’re not expecting anything, it almost sounds like a soft ‘d’ sound.

In my limited and not very rigorous experience with teaching English, I’ve found that the ‘l’ sound is much easier for students to get a handle on than ‘r’. At least partly (I think) because it’s a lot easier to demonstrate how to position your tongue.

I was a set builder on a little amateur theater group where one of the regular actors was a Japanese guy.

In one play he was typecast as the boss of a Japanese gang. An actor came in in one scene and told him that their big score had been foiled by a fluke.

His response was “Lotten ruck.” which he pronounced flawlessly.

In my experience, the Japanese “r” is pronounced almost identically to the Spanish “r” as taught in high school Spanish in California. We used to refer to it as the “rolled r”. Coincidentally, the vowels are pronounced identically the same as far as I can tell.

That’s not quite accurate. Mandarin Chinese has a lateral consonant sound that is very close to the English /l/. This page has several sound files where you can hear it. There is also a retroflex approximant sound that is close to, but not exactly like, the English /r/. Furthermore, there is the erhua sound, which is only found at the end of syllables and also sounds somewhat like the English /r/. See the pronunciations for er.

It is Japanese that truly lacks any equivalent to the English /r/. There is one sound, a postalveolar flap, that is somewhat between an English /l/ and a short Spanish /r/ sound.

Benny Hill’s japanese character having problems with his elections comes to mind

Thanks for all the replies - I guess a lot of times it’s a case of lumping all Asians together (ie, Japanese don’t use “l”, so let’s make it true for Chinese as well) for the sake of comedy by Hollywood writers (though it would appear there definitely does seem to be some difficulty with “l” in some cases, so the jokes aren’t based on a total fabrication).

Now explain why TV/movie stereotype is that Russians can’t say v sounds (such as Checkov on Star Trek says “wessel” instead of “vessel”) when Russian has a perfectly good “v” consonant but no equivalent of “w”?

FTR: Korean has both the /L/ and the /R/ sounds.

That one’s actually true for many Germans at least. German has a “v” sound, but nothing that sounds like an English “w”. The letter “v” in German is sometimes pronounced like an “f” and sometimes like an English “v”, while the letter “w” is always pronounced like the English “v”. So when Germans learn the English “w” sound, they often also use it for the “v”, because in their own language those letters do share the same pronounciation.

But it’s also quite easy to learn the difference, so this is not a mistake a German who is somewhat fluent in English will usually make.

Norwegian has no ‘w’ sound either, and even if I, IMNSHO, speak English quite well, I sometimes overcompensate and say wessel, wideo, weneral. And at other times I go the other way and say vashington, vednesday. They’re all vees to me.

It’s not just the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans who use a consonant that is interpreted as both “L” and “R”. The Indians of New Jersey, now called the Delawares, were called by themselves the Lenni-Lenape. Or the Renape – transliterations of the early accounts vary. Nowadays the name is invariably given as “Lenape”, but it’s evident that at the times of thye first encounters the Europeans werem’t sure if that letter should be an “L” or an “R”, and it got written both ways.

In the realm of the anecdotal, my Chinese friend typically pronounces his r’s as l’s. So for example, “rent” sounds like “lent,” and “rain” like “lain.” It takes a bit of getting used to.

Sometimes Europeans aren’t sure about their own languages. See:
French: église
Spanish: iglesia
Portuguese: igreja

Korean has both consonants: the /L/ and the /R/.

/SA-RANG/ love
/HA-LA-SAN/ Mount Halla

In an episode of Black Adder, Hugh Laurie played a German who freely interchanged Ws and Vs, which is completely illogical given the absence of the W sound in German. I think this, as well as the freely interchanged L/R in East Asian stereotypes, is just the result of imperfect understanding, disinterest in improving understanding, and an easy hook for cheap jokes.