Matt Smith

Levisiting the plobrems

Problems with pronuncing R and L

As anyone with even the minimum of experience with Thai and Korean speakers of English would know, they tend to have a lot of trouble with ‘r’ and ‘l’. Namely, they can’t make a sound that the native speaker can, on the basis of sound alone, clearly distinguish as being either ‘r’ or ‘l’. And, because of this, when they listen to words that contain ‘r’ or ‘l’, they’re not sure which of these letters of the alphabet they’re hearing. Is there any reason, furthermore, to say this matters, or to try to alter the course of nature? Well, obviously, there is such a thing as being too pedantic about pronunciation, as perfect pronunciation in my experience is pretty much the last aspect of a second language to properly fall into place. Nonetheless, there are some very good reasons to argue that Thai and Korean students should be shown very clearly from the outset exactly what they have to do to come up with an unambiguous ‘r’ and ‘l’, and the sort of problems that are going to stand in their way, as well as be reminded at auspicious moments that they need to keep up the effort to get it right.

Foremost amongst these reasons, in my opinion, is that while we can usually guess from context which sound it is they’re trying to say, there remain plenty of occasions on which time can be wasted, and misunderstandings created, by mispronunciation. The spur for me to write this article, in fact, provides a very good example of this; as I was travelling in the car with two of my Korean friends the other day, both of whom are otherwise excellent speakers of English, they were trying to explain to me a Korean expression that means sudden surprise. The first word in the expression, they were telling me, means ‘river’; the remainder of the expression, they went on to explain, means ‘it is anticipated will fall down’. I was quite bemused, to begin with, because we wouldn’t really say in English that a river, per se, ‘falls down’; do you mean, I asked them, that this expression infers sudden surprise because it is analogous to the feeling one would get when one rounds the bend in one’s boat to be confronted by Niagra Falls? No silly, they told me, we’re not talking about the river as in water, we’re talking about the river as in the organ that cleans your blood. When you’re suddenly surprised, you get the feeling that your ‘river’ is about to fall down into the nether regions of your body. Ahhh…

In fact, I find it fairly unsettling when the beautiful efficiency of the code to transcribe thought into sounds that spoken language represents is spoiled by mispronunciation, or when the logic of such a wonderful system is thus tarnished; nor is having conversation led down the garden path the least of the negative outcomes that said mispronunciation can create. Sometimes, the things one says, quite apart from being simply misleading, can be damned embarrassing. In terms of ‘r’ and ‘l’, there is always the clichéd example of people who can’t get it right asking for ‘a serving of flies’, or, when upholding the concept of democracy, ‘holding an erection’; I’m not just critical of Thai and Korean people speaking my language, of course, I need to be on the ball myself. My most classic faux pas was, when lecturing to 50 Thai students about snow, I decided to take the easy way out and translate the word snow into Thai; with but one slip of the tongue what I came out with was not ‘hi-ma’, which is the word that I was looking for, but instead ‘hee-mar’, which means, in the rudest possible sense imaginable, nothing less than a dog’s vagina! While such things are of considerable amusement to me, because I’ve never had to be taken seriously in either Thai or Korean society on the basis of my ability to speak these languages, imagine the indignity that arises for Thai and Korean people who are trying to be taken seriously on the basis of their English when they consistently mispronounce their ‘r’s and ‘l’s; I’d say that, while it is of course a sad inditement on the mentality of a lot of Australian people, there were more than a few of my Asian professors at university who wished they had an understanding of and ability to speak the sounds ‘r’ and ‘l’ that allowed them to forego the constant snickers and cruel mimicry that continually confronted them, and that so challenged their intellectual integrity.

Which is not to mention either that, in terms now of listening, getting ‘r’ and ‘l’ right does wonders for a lot of Thai and Korean students’ spelling; once they’ve mastered the art, one no longer has to read about ‘flogs in the pond’, or how much they ‘rike the Austlarian people’.

No, there are definitely a lot of reasons to prevent nature taking its course, or to initiate some appropriate intervention; this becomes completely apparent when we consider that, contrary to the opinion of many, there is absolutely no biological reason why a Thai or Korean person cannot pronounce a perfect ‘r’ or ‘l’. Rather than imagining, in other words, that to get these sounds right one is going to have to go to the lengths of performing one of the more ghastly acts of mutilation on one’s own body that the drive to conform to Western norms creates (or that to give your kids a dignified English speaking future you’re going to have to have it done on them), and suffer painful surgery of the tongue, the Thai or Korean person would do better to bear in mind that, with the exception of obvious deformity, the scientific community is predominantly in agreement that any human mouth can produce the sounds of any human language. For evidence of a lack of biological impediments to a native-like pronunciation of ‘r’ and ‘l’ one needs look no further than the Thai and Korean people who have been born within Australia; why, those amongst them who I’ve met speak no differently to the way I do! Furthermore, while deviations from the mainstream modes of Australian pronunciation that don’t create ambiguity of meaning are indeed in many cases somewhat lingering, when it comes to even non-native born Thai and Korean Australians I’ve come across many of them who, after no time at all, certainly aren’t struggling with ‘r’ and ‘l’; in fact, about the only ones who have never got it right in my experience are the ones who are very dogmatic about the already ‘high status’ of their abilities, or who think that the way they are when they come to Australia is as good as you can get.

Which hints at one of the real reasons for why some Thai or Korean people wouldn’t be able to say ‘r’ and ‘l’; an inability to be critical of oneself in any society walks hand in hand with all sorts of disturbing flaws. But of course there are but few students one will come across, I think especially these days, whose troubles are the consequence of this mentality; more importantly, we might point to the following. Coming in at number one, without a doubt, when it comes to what lies at the heart of the ‘r’ and ‘l’ dilemma for Thai and Korean people, is the transliteration problem; to begin with, an enormous number of English words have been incorporated into the Thai and Korean languages, and of course because they have become a part of these languages they are spelt using the Thai and Korean orthographic systems. In addition, well-meaning but completely misguided teachers, right from the outset, tend to ‘help’ Thai and Korean students with the English language by, once again, spelling them using the characters of the Thai or Korean languages. The problem here is simple; Thai, Korean and English each have their own unique set of sounds, many of which are exclusive to that language; when it comes to ‘r’ and ‘l’, Thai and Korean lack the exact equivalents, and so what is substituted instead for the sake of writing English in these languages are approximants. Leading, of course, to the dilemma that, because when the students think of English words they are on account of these factors thinking of ‘English’ that uses the sound systems of their own languages, they mispronounce these sounds.

In Thai, the nearest approximant for ‘r’ is ‘rohr ruhr’ (which is a sound I’m teaching you incorrectly because I’m using English to write it…); this is a sound made by vibrating your tongue against the roof of the mouth. If it was spoken the way that it is in very formal situations spoken in Thai as a substitute for ‘r’ (I’m sure you’ve all heard them giving it a good trill) it wouldn’t be too bad, because of course there are some native speakers of English who roll their ‘r’s, and we don’t have any trouble understanding them; usually, though, for the sake of brevity, or in normal speech, the tongue touches just once, and this is the way Thais say it when they substitute it for ‘r’ in English. The outcome – we hear a sound that sounds like ‘l’, not ‘r’. In Korean, they substitute the sound ‘ree-eul’ (again, a misleading spelling) for ‘r’; in this sound too the tongue touches the roof of the mouth, always just once here, lending native speakers of English the impression that an ‘l’ has been spoken. When it comes to ‘l’ in English, furthermore, while both Thai and Korean have similar approximants (‘lor-ling’ in Thai and the aforementioned ‘ree-eul’ in Korean), in my understanding the tongue doesn’t work as forcefully as it does in English, leading to much softer sounds that can easily be mistaken for ‘r’; hence, of course, the argument that the transliteration problem is nine-tenths responsible for the overall problems that native speaker English teachers typically observe in their Thai and Korean students.

This problem with ‘r’ is exacerbated, furthermore, by the fact that there have traditionally been a number of linguistics texts that show ‘r’ being spoken with the very tip of the tongue curled towards the roof of the mouth; while there are a small minority of English speakers who pronounce it this way, for most of us the tip of the tongue doesn’t so much raise as retract (as you can see at ). The real shame here being that by learning to speak ‘r’ this way, if Thai and Korean people don’t outright mistake the pronunciation for the way they say the approximants they use from their own language (I’ve had them go self-righteously crook at me for criticising something ‘that’s plainly illustrated in this book’), the tongue is in a position so close to the way they’d say these sounds anyway that they just can’t help themselves from doing it. If they were to observe illustrations that depict the tip of the tongue being kept at bay, in other words, we might imagine that this would go a long way towards rectifying the problem.

Indeed, when you see what’s at the heart of the problem – a general misunderstanding of how the mouth’s articulatory mechanisms should be working, and enculturation with a false set of instructions (the impregnation of the brain with a visual code that relates to or programmes the wrong mouth movements) – it clearly obviates what needs to be done about it. Humans are, when all the advantages to be gained lie in rational directions, reasonable creatures; by showing one’s students what they need to be doing to say ‘r’ and ‘l’, by pointing out to them the pitfalls, and by gently ensuring that they lend sufficient attention to their shortcomings of pronunciation to overcome force of habit, you can have them ‘r’-ing and ‘l’-ing like champions in no time. Of course it doesn’t hurt either to, in view of making them aware that there are advantages to be gained, point out the logical disadvantages of persisting with incorrect methods of pronunciation; unless it’s brought home to them succinctly that the benefits are worth the effort, any tuition in these directions will likely go to waste.

In conclusion here, in other words, it would seem sensible to recommend the following. Ban transliteration; put the English alphabet up on the wall, teach your students to associate English characters directly with English sounds, and spell words in English. Explain to them that the Konglish and Tinglish pronunciations with which they’re familiar are not English, and why, and that there’ll be disadvantages to using them when conversing with English speaking people. Use clear diagrams, mirrors, peer-to-peer observation of the mouth and so on to make sure they know the way to get it right; avoid the use of English pronunciations of ‘r’ that lie too close to the pronunciation of Thai and Korean approximants, and make sure they know that to produce the ‘l’ sound the tongue works very strongly (like I always tell them, spit doesn’t come out of an ESL teacher’s mouth for nothing!). Finally, keep the mirror on hand, and get your class to check each other on subsequent occasions, so that you can constantly remind students of the mechanism of what they’re doing; get them to slow down and concentrate on it until the correct pronunciation is written to their memory, or until it becomes automatic.

With some students you will, of course, want to throw your hands into the air (there are those who might even get a bit cranky at you because they keep blowing it); don’t give up, though, because if you get the whole class on side with what you’re doing and they help you remind the forgetful ones (make it more of a disadvantage to get it wrong), you’ll ultimately be successful.


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