Only Speed is Unbreakable: Why some Asian accents swap Ls and Rs in English
There is a popular saying in Hong Kong kung-fu movies, and that is ‘wai faai bat po,’ or: ‘Only speed is unbreakable.’ When an English speaker, unfamiliar with Chinese tones, repeats this phrase it comes out as, ‘The Wi-Fi is unbreakable.’
However, most English speakers are familiar with a different stereotype: that Asian people often swap the L and R sounds. This trope appears in a number of Hollywood movies in a multitude of questionable ways, including Lost in Translation, and A Christmas Story. Many depictions are offensive, if not downright false. But looking beyond that, there is a phonological explanation for why this swap occurs in certain languages.
In order to understand why the L and R sounds are swapped, it is important to consider the different forms of L and R that exist in English. R is often one of the last sounds an English-speaking child masters, taking them on average, five years. That’s because the bunched R, particularly common in American English, is especially complex.
In Japanese, all English L sounds enter the language as the Japanese R, leading to words like ‘carenda’ (calendar) and ‘raito’ (light). The Japanese R is very close to the English L. This is something Japanese students of English have to un-learn, and it is difficult when their ears aren’t attuned to the difference in the first place.
Meanwhile in Korea, there is one letter (‘rieul’) which is transliterated as L or R in the Latin alphabet, depending on its position in the word, but there is no equivalent of the English dark L, found at the end of words such as ‘level.’ This means that a Korean speaker is unlikely to say ‘herro,’ instead of ‘hello,’ but that they may use a Korean L instead of an R towards the end of an English word, such as ‘unfurl.’
To find out more, check out this video on Vox.