Japanese people speaking English

I don’t have a lot of first-hand experience with this (and am not sure if it’s even true) so if I’m inadvertantly pepetuating a racist slur then please forgive me!

Why is it when Japanese speakers speak English the letters l and r are exchanged? So ‘rip’ becomes ‘lip’ and ‘please’ becomes ‘prease’? I find this doubly confusing on the grounds that if as a linguistic group the Japanese can pronounce the sounds l and r why don’t they do it in the correct places? I could understand if they couldn’t say a sound that they would exchange if for something they could, but why consistently swap sounds? :confused:

Here’s an earlier thread on the subject.

Long story short, Japanese has a sound that falls between R and L with just a hint of a tongue-click. If you’re expecting to hear a native English L, it will sound more like an R, and vice-versa. If you’re not expecting anything, it can sometimes sound like a D.

Every language has sounds which are different, but accepted by native speakers as equivalent. “rrr” and “llll” are equivalents in Japanese. (sorta). Perhaps an illustration from English would help.

Say “Butter”. Out loud. Yes, right now.

Did you say BU-ter or did you say BU-der
Chances are about equal for either option. The “t” and the “d” are equivalent sounds when in the center of a word. Try it: matter, batter, patter, lattice, patio.

Someone learning English whose native tongue doesn’t see those sounds as interchangeable will hear a huge difference - so much so that they appear to be two different words.

My favourite example of this is the Canadian propensity for pronouncing the word spelled “during” as if it is spelled “juring.” This is so widespread that it’s common for Canadians with less than ideal spelling skills to actually spell the word with a J.

To most Canadians, the difference is unnoticable - so much so that people will insist they don’t say it “juring,” and then say it that way - and it’s not always noticeable even to other English-speaking people. But to a foreigner learning English, “juring” and “during” would, indeed, sound just as different as “just” and “dust.”

Not if you’re from the UK: there’s a very great distinction. I only point this out as the OP’s location is marked as UK, so it’s not the best example.

Ah, good point. I didn’t notice that. Can you think of a UK example? All my speech pathology courses were in American.

And RickJay, thanks for the Canadian example. I will file it away in my mental stash of “Stuff I know”.

I just tried your exercise and was struggling to see your point as I have a standard English accent and pronounce constonants very carefully, but then realised you were writing with a US person in mind :slight_smile:

I apologize. I try to remember that the Dope is an international board, but occasionally I do lapse into Americentrism. I’ll try to rustle up a UK example for you. :wink:

I’m trying to think of an English accent one, but I really can’t. Not saying there aren’t, mind.

Me neither for standard English, although if you were to include English accents/dialects you’d have no shortage of examples :slight_smile:

We’ve established that Japanese aren’t really switching Ls and Rs, just blurring the two sounds so that it sounds like switching. However, in the rural areas of Northern Vietnam, they really do switch two consonants: Ls and Ns. It does seem strange to me that they can pronounce both sounds, but reverse them. Are there any other examples of this through the world? Has anybody figured out what causes it?

Northern Vietnam’s proximity to China results in people speaking Vietnamese “with a Chinese accent”.

[BEGIN parenthetical comments]

I’m using quote marks because my above comment is meant to be taken lightly – and I can’t find the exact words to express what I mean. I can only offer the following random observations:

  • Vietnamese and Chinese share linguistic characteristics

  • Many Vietnamese are descendents of Chinese immgrants, so it’s difficult to draw the line on what an “authentic” Vietnamese accent should be

  • Although the national language of Vietnam is Vietnamese (insert obligatory “no duh” here), the government prefers people to speak the North Vietnamese dialect (it’s what you hear if you learn Vietnamese overseas from language kits). It’s similar to the way the Chinese government prefers people to speak Mandarin as it is spoken in Beijing. Since my parents were Ho Chi Minh City (nee Saigon), I speak with a Southern Vietnamese accent; I sometimes find the North Vietnamese dialect a little grating. To use an imperfect analogy, think of how speakers of Cockney or Estuary English think of Received Pronunciation (RP can sound pompous sometimes).

[/END parenthetical comments]

Cantonese speakers will often swap “N” and “L” sounds for the word “you” (“neih” or “leih”).

Now that I thinking about it, even Southern Vietnamese speakers will swap N and L sounds for the word “five” depending upon context. For instance:

“Five” - pronounced “nam”

“Twenty-five” - pronounced “hai muoi lam” (although it’s still written as “nam”)

“Five hundred five” - pronounced “nam tram le nam”

“Five hundred fifty-five” prnounced “nam tram nam muoi lam”

My take on this? (I have no cite.) “Nam” sounds like the word for “year”. To avoid confusion:

“Hai muoi lam” - “twenty-five”

“Hai muoi nam” - “twenty years”

Another personal conjecture: I find pronouncing Ls in the middle of words and phrases easier than Ns. Perhaps words beginning with N became mispronounced with L sounds, which later became accepted.

By the way, I find the Japanese “R” sound very trying. It sounds like an “L”, trilled “R” (think Spanish), or “D” depending upon the word and/or who is speaking it. One thing that teachers have stressed though, is that it never sounds like an American “R”.

Sometimes I stumble on pronouncing “arigatou” (Thank you) and, to avoid sounding like a gaijin, end up saying “Oukii ni!” (Thank You in Kansai dialect, which has a stereotypical reputation for being spoken by “hick” farmers). Of course, now I sound like a retarded gaijin, since I don’t look like I’m from Osaka at all. :wink:

Disclaimer: These are the rantings of a tongue-in-cheek non-linguist. I welcome corrections.

Not really that many. Vietnamese is an Austro-Asiatic language whereas Chinese is a Sino-Tibetan one.

Is the Chinese ethnic population really that high? I was under the impression it wasn’t all that big.

The big reason it’s hard to pin down an “authentic” accent is because there’s more than one prestige dialect. Of course the Hanoi dialect has had a long history of being the preferred own; however, both that of Saigon and Hue are considered prestige dialects.

I first learned the Hanoi dialect and then the Saigon dialect, thus the Saigon one sounds odd to me. For my dad, who learned a bit of the Saigon dialect when stationed in Vietnam, it’s the other way around. That has to do with training to include socialization (in the technical sense).

That’s the only sound swapping I can think of for Vietnamese, other than the swapping involved in reduplication and the tone sandhi for mu+o+i`. And the reason you’ve posited for the [l] instead of [n] for ‘five’ is the exact reason given in scholastic treatments of Vietnamese.

I’m a few thousand miles away from my Linguistic books and, sadly, my memory’s failing me for the technical term involved. Languages tend over time to change some sounds in a fairly predictable way. I don’t remember where the [n] and [l] sounds fall on that gauge.


Disclaimer: These are the rantings of a tongue-in-cheek non-linguist. I welcome corrections.

I think you did a fair job of it. As I alluded above, I am a linguist ('twas my major). BTW, just this morning I was trying to remember if anyon had mentioned before on this board that they’re native speakers of Vietnamese. Thanks for providing the answer!

Two things:

(1) The ending of my post just above should look like:

I had to retype the post since the first time I previewed it, the system decided that I was no longer logged in and dumped it. The second time, I wimped out and instead of copying it to the clipboard just in case, opted for the bad choice.

(2) I should also have mentioned that Vietnamese picked up tones as distinctive features (affecting meaning) as a regional characteristic. In other words, sometime during the history of the Vietnamese language, the effect of tones in Chinese affected other languages in the region and those other languages picked up the habit, so to speak (hope that’s not too bad a pun).

You’re pronouncing a little too carefully. It’s consonants. :slight_smile:

I take issue with this description and I don’t think it’s the sole explanation in every case. In my observations, Japanese who have studied English conversation even for a short time are entirely capable of making perfectly distinct R and L sounds in English. Their problem is that they are completely incapable of hearing those distinct sounds. So if they are reading from a page written in English, they perform well at pronouncing these properly. If they’re speaking extemporaneously or reciting from memory, they’ll use the distinct sounds and mix them up completely at random. I’ve also had them tell me that when they’re tired or just not feeling like putting out any effort, they’ll just use the Japanese r-l sound for everything.

As an aside, the r/l problem also applies to f/h, b/v, s/sh/th to some extent.

I’m slightly confused by your explanation. In American English, /t/ or /d/ between vowels are pronounced identically, with an alveolar tap (very much like the Spanish tap /r/ in para.) So “ladder” and “latter” are literally identical when pronounced by Americans, though many speakers actually believe they pronounce them differently.

This explanation matches my very limited familiarity with the issue. It’s tough to remember which sound is used in a word if you can’t hear the difference. And note that observation is probably a particularly poor tool to quantify the matter, since if a Japanese speaker gets it right much of the time, no one will notice - it’s the exceptional cases that people pick up on.

I was an English teacher there… the exceptional case would have been anybody getting it right, and it shocked me on the rare occasion it did occur.

There’s an additional dynamic that I failed to mention… most ESL teaching in Japan is delivered with all the classroom conversation and written materials in Japanese, where of course the sounds will all be rendered in the limitations of katakana. Conversation and pronounciation were unheard of until the past 10 years or so, and even now, acceptance is slow in coming. English is taught essentially as a tool to translate English written materials into Japanese.

I have sat through an “English class” lasting a full 60 minutes where no word was spoken in English nor written in Roman characters… all Japanese, all katakana. So it’s not even so much that Japanese have such a hard time speaking or hearing the sounds… they simply have been woefully underexposed to it, and have been conditioned to the fallacy that the 56 or so phonemes of katakana are perfectly adequate to represent the full phonetic range of any language in the world.

If they actually only rarely used the correct sound in a word, than your explanation doesn’t actually work, since it doesn’t account for why they would preferentially switch them.