Friday, August 28, 2015

Sounds of Sirensu by Simon and Gafunkuru: The L and R (Mis)Pronunciation Problem in Japanese language

I've written before about the incredible gymnastics our tongues do while speaking English. By contrast, the Japanese language utilizes an incredibly conservative restraint in tongue and facial muscle movement. Teaching to discriminate and pronounce the difference between the L and R sounds in Japan is the bane of any English teacher's existence.

the bane of A’s life [existence]
A<人>の身を滅ぼす原因, 命取り

In English we clearly distinguish between L and R.
e.g.: Left and right, light and right, flame and frame, etc..

In Japanese pronunciation the L/R sound usually falls somewhere between the English L and R sounds.
In practice it is maybe 80% of the time closer to L than R but the pronunciation is truly ambiguous. People wishing to adopt a Japanese accent usually change all their L's to R's and all their R's to L's.

This can often cause some confusion and frustration, as well as some giggling, for Japanese English students and their teachers. A good example of this would be the topic of America having a big election next year. I leave it to you to find why this is funny.

Another example : The word 'sirens' came up during a lesson.

                 The student asks: "Silence? Like quiet?"

                 The teacher says "No. Not 'silence' (sáɪləns) . A 'siren' (sáɪ(ə)r(ə)n); plural sáɪ(ə)r(ə)nz.

This immediately brought up the idea of Simon and Garfunkel's perennial hit song 'The Sounds of Silence' morphing through a kind of Katakana filter into the 'Sounds of Sirens'.

Here is the Sounds of Silence:

And here are the sounds of sirens:

  1. Through Japanese Katakana pronunciation Silence gets pronounced as "Sirensu", changing the L to R  and adding an extra syllable. That's because Japanese does not have just an 's' sound. It is either a 'sa', 'shi', 'su', 'se' or 'so'. As a matter of fact, all consonants are followed by a vowel in Japanese, which can change bed to 'beddo', 'want' to 'wantu ' and laugh to 'raffu'.

    The word siren comes from Greek mythology. A siren's song was said to be so bewitching that sailors would drive their ships onto the rocks or throw themselves into the sea, killing themselves.

    There are so many references to the Asian (usually Chinese or Japanese) L and R mispronunciation in movies and t.v. There is this scene from 'A Christmas Story' (1983) where Chinese restaurant staff attempt to sing the beloved Christmas carol 'Deck the Halls'; Fa la la la la becomes Fa ra ra ra ra.

    And in 'Lost in Translation' (2003) a woman demands to have her stockings ripped, er, lipped.

    This L/R mispronunciation is usually amusing, even humorous, to many foreign speakers. But if you are studying English, please don't get discouraged! English is spoken around the world in a variety of accents. If you do some travel you are sure to discover this fact. And if you travel by airplane please enjoy your fright!

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