Is it true that Chinese speakers have troubles with ‘r’s and ‘l’s in English words?

It is such a sterotype that Chinese speakers mix up ‘r’s and ‘l’s that I always assumed it to be true. Is this the case and, if so, why? The tongue position is totally different.


As I understand, in at least some major dialects of Chinese (maybe all, I don’t know), the /l/ and /r/ sounds exist but are prosodically restricted. The /l/ can only appear syllable-initially while the /r/ appears syllable-finally. This means that a Chinese speaker would have more trouble with an /l/ sound at the end of a word and also with an /r/ sound at the beginning of a word. This means that a speaker should be able to pronounce the /l/ in “ladder” but have difficulty with “red”. This agrees with Jon Purdy’s examples of yimier for “email” and luōqièsītè for “Rochester”.

Korean has the opposite going on; that is, their /l/ and /r/ are in allophonic variation such that /r/ shows up syllable-initially and /l/ syllable-finally, meaning they would have more trouble saying the /l/-sound in “ladder” than in “feel”.

In both cases, it would not be trivial for a native speaker of these languages to distinguish the differences between English /l/ and /r/.

It may seem strange that a language would have no difficulty pronouncing a sound in one position in the syllable but extreme difficulty pronouncing the sound elsewhere. However, in English, we have similarly restricted consonants. For example, the consonant /ŋ/ (the “ng” sound in “hanger” — yes it is only one sound, unlike “finger” which has the sequence [ŋɡ]) is only produced syllable-finally in English. But, in many other languages, words commonly begin with /ŋ/ (e.g. Swahili). So the difficulty you would have pronouncing “ngapi” (/ŋapi/) is the same type of difficulty Chinese and Korean speakers run into with /r/ and /l/ in certain places.

In Japanese, there is only one sound that appears in all positions within the syllable. Their /r/ sound is something between /l/ and /r/, and so every English /l/ sound comes out sounding like something “r”-ish.

Source : Link , Question Author : dave , Answer Author : Kosmonaut

Leave a Comment