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Sometimes I have a problem in distinguishing "L" and "R" in spoken English. I wonder if native speakers distinguish well the pronunciations of "L" and "R".

For example, how about "leave" and "reave" or "elect" and "erect"?

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    I've heard that the confusion between /l/ and /r/ is common among Japanese learners of English. This is mainly because /l/ and /r/ are both pronounced as /r/ in Japanese, so theoretically, election and erection could sound the same to many learners from Japan. I can confirm that native speakers can hear the difference of the two sounds very well, and I can hear it too. On the other hand, sometimes I misheard a Japanese /r/ as a /d/ sound. :-) I think our first language and the second language we're learning can have a real impact. But don't give up, the more we practice the better we are! – Damkerng T. Oct 12 '15 at 1:05
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    I don't think so. But different languages have vastly different ways to make a sound that each one perceives as "the" R sound. Summed up here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhotic_consonant Also, the /l/ in English is this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alveolar_lateral_approximant (I had to duplicate comment due to technical restrictions...) – Nihilist_Frost Oct 12 '15 at 1:55
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    As a native speaker of another western language (Brasilian Portuguese) I can confirm that "l" and "r" sounds completely different to us as well (either in .en or in .pt or outher languages). To the point the question sounds strange. – jsbueno Oct 12 '15 at 5:09
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    @MakotoKato: small number of such word-pairs relative to what? red/led, rad/lad, reap/leap, right/light, ran/LAN, rip/lip, rot/lot, gilt/girt, glitter/gritter. How many should there be we weren't avoiding them? ;-) – Steve Jessop Oct 12 '15 at 10:36
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    English speakers often have a hard time distinguishing Japanese ぬ(nu) from にゅ(nyu), because they are allophones in English. Which is strange, since む(mu) and みゅ(myu) are distinct in English (compare: music vs. *moosic) – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Oct 12 '15 at 18:27

11 Answers 11

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There are always some people who are exceptions, but yes, native English speakers in general do clearly and easily distinguish these sounds.

I'm not a linguist, but from what I've read and seen it tends to be fairly common that native speakers of a language will easily distinguish phonetic differences that affect meaning, while ignoring those that don't. I'm guessing your native language doesn't distinguish these sounds: perhaps one of them isn't used, the same letter (or equivalent) can represent either sound, or which sound is used in a given word depends on the speaker's dialect.

Most English speakers would have a similar problem learning a language in which the sounds of k as in skip (not aspirated) and k as in kill (aspirated in most dialects, almost pronounced khill) are distinguished (affecting meaning). As a native English speaker I can hear the difference if I think about it, but as far as understanding spoken English goes they're both the sound of k. (Thanks to Peter Olsen for the example.)

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    I think the difference between "s in sauce" and "s in measure" isn't a very good example, since /s/ and /ʒ/ are distinct phonemes in English, and the fact that they are both spelled with "s" is just an artifact of the orthography, and not really representative of the underlying phonology (the "s" in "measure" is also the "g" in "genre" and "z" in "azure"). I think a better example of what English speakers would have trouble distinguishing would be the unaspirated /k/ in "skip" and the aspirated /kʰ/ in "kill", since they are allophones in English. – Peter Olson Oct 12 '15 at 3:01
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    English speakers can definitely and easy distinguish between /s/ and /ʒ/, such as 'loose' vs 'luge'. There are two differences, the voicing and the place of articulation. – curiousdannii Oct 12 '15 at 3:01
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    In fact, if someone pronounced sauce as /ʒɔs/ "zhoss" and measure as /mɛsr/ "messer", I think you would not only notice immediately that the pronunciations were wrong, but you might not even know which words they meant. Switching /s/ and /ʒ/ is definitely a significant change in English. – Joe Oct 12 '15 at 5:21
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    Brilliant answer - apart from your last paragraph, which doesn't live up to the rest. The question is about sounds and not spelling. And us native speakers have no problem distinguishing the /s/ and /ʒ/. Consider lesser and leisure which are different apart from these two sounds. If you remove this bit I can upvote your post!!! – Araucaria Oct 12 '15 at 13:14
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    Just take the S paragraph out!!!!!!!!!!!!! Pleeeeaaaaaaaasssssseeeee :-) – Araucaria Oct 13 '15 at 8:44
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English speakers distinguish these sounds almost perfectly. Certainly with well over 99% accuracy. As pointed out in another post here, any phonemes that create a difference in meaning in a language (in a substantial number of environments) will be clearly and reliably distinguished by native speakers.

If you are a Japanese speaker planning to speak English with speakers whose first language also distinguishes /l/ from /r/, then it is ESSENTIAL that you learn to make these sounds so that they are distinguishable. Even if you don't remember in every case, you need to be able to make these sounds completely distinct. It's even better if you can train yourself to hear the difference. This is a much more difficult task, but it's doable. Many very good Japanese speakers of English find it difficult to hear the difference. However, all very good speakers of English can produce the sounds correctly.

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    Individual sound recognition is nowhere near 99%. We rely for a very large part on contextual clues (words and even sentences) to disambiguate. This can be tested by playing isolated sounds to listeners; they'll misidentify several times the 1% you assume. – MSalters Oct 14 '15 at 7:11
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    @MSalters Recognising sounds in isolation is a very different thing from being able to distinguish phones or identify phonemes. We distinguish many sounds not by their individual sounds but their effect on neighbouring sounds. Especially with consonants the approach and release phases are often more important than the sounds themselves. So are other effects such as the presence or absence of prefortis clipping, the presence or absence of devoicing, the presence or absence of nasalisation. The other thing you're confusing is which phonemes may be confused with which. So /l/ ... – Araucaria Oct 14 '15 at 8:12
  • @MSalters ... may be confused by native speakers for alveolar /d/ or /n/, but it's very unlikely to be confused for /r/. – Araucaria Oct 14 '15 at 8:23
  • There would be some confusion with the speaker's first sentence, but native speakers or good English speakers would very quickly figure out what the problem is and understand the speaker reasonably well. – gnasher729 Oct 14 '15 at 8:52
  • @MSalters: Really? I don't think any native English speakers will misidentify the la la and ra ra ra parts of Lady Gaga's Bad Romance. Do people really hear them as the same? – slebetman Oct 15 '15 at 3:05
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I would say that not only do most native speakers have no problem distinguishing them, but that they sound so different that the idea of mixing them is surprising and therefore somewhat comical (sometimes, unfortunately so, as in stereotypical mockery of Asian speakers).

Short of speech impediment, no native speaker mixes these letters. Children sometimes have trouble with r and l (and especially r), but they usually become a "w" or "uh" sound, not intermixed. So, in order to sound natural, it's really, really important to get this right.

I say this with a lot of sympathy because as a native English speaker there are many sounds in other languages which I can't properly distinguish, let alone pronounce. (That Czech Ř kills me.) Or, perhaps more similarly to l and r, the two pronouncations of ch in German.

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    or the 4 tones of Mandarin... – Adeptus Oct 14 '15 at 1:11
  • +1 for pointing out that they sound so different that the idea of mixing them is suprising – GreenAsJade Oct 15 '15 at 8:35
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I don't think most native speakers experience any such difficulty; but the fact is, distinguishing phonemes is only a small part of understanding speech.

  • Every speaker has his or her own way of pronouncing sounds; a good deal of our speech-processing faculty goes to "normalizing" these pronunciations.
  • Speech is also full of interruptions, false starts, changes of direction; again, we have to sort all that out to make more sense of what people say than they actually express.
  • Much of the sound that actually reaches our ears is in fact overlaid and obscured by various sorts of environmental noise, leaving "holes" of unintelligibility that have to be filled in by guesswork.

So when we're listening to speech, we're paying attention to a great deal more than properly pronounced words: we're also employing our knowledge of grammatical rules and idiomatic constructions and particularly the discourse context, from the nature of the immediate topic to the entire cultural background we share with the speaker. We have a great many more cues than the vocal sounds to tell us what any given word in any given context has to be.

Just for example, I'd be willing to bet that very few people have ever even heard the word "reave"; it's a literary word, virtually nonexistent in the spoken vocabulary, and even in literature "leave" is more than 10,000 times as frequent according to Google Ngrams. Moreover, how likely is it that a word meaning "rob or steal by force in a raid" would occur in a context where "leave" would be intended. If you mistakenly said "reave" for "leave" everybody would automatically correct it to "leave"--most people wouldn't even notice the need to filter it.

So whether or not hearers are able to distinguish the actual sounds they hear, they have no difficulty recognizing the sound which should be there!

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    I agree. Because native speakers know the proper and suitable word for the context. I remember a post somewhere in the internet wherein the letters of each word in the sentence are scrambled. Our eyes, being familiar with the spelling of each word, can still perceive and understand what the message is. I think the same may apply, re: pronunciation and auditory recognition. – shin Oct 12 '15 at 1:22
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    @shin Exactly. It's why it's so hopeless trying to proofread your own copy! – StoneyB Oct 12 '15 at 1:41
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    A native speaker who doesn't know the word 'reave' won't think that someone said 'leave' instead, they just won't know what was said. – curiousdannii Oct 12 '15 at 3:03
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    @StoneyB I'll concede that for that example listeners would ignore the mistake, but I don't think that's at all a likely slip of the tongue for a native speaker to make. – curiousdannii Oct 12 '15 at 3:12
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    Almost nobody knows "reave"?? Are you forgetting Firefly?? With repeated mentions of "reavers"?? – Loren Pechtel Oct 13 '15 at 2:09
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In elementary education (at least in California), /l/ and /r/ are actually something that some (i.e. many) children struggle to pronounce. Generally these children also have trouble distinguishing the phonemes, but don't have any trouble with distinguishing actual words, for which they rely on context. Creating situations where the children cannot rely on context to distinguish meaning (e.g. playing word-games pronouncing minimal pairs) helps highlight the phonetic difference to them, so that they learn to distinguish the sounds. Adults and older children often find such mispronunciation humorous, to the detriment of such a child. Such difficulties generally vanish by the first grade (the only first grade students I knew personally who had difficulty with /r/ vs /l/ were of Japanese descent).

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    Do you have any evidence of this? I'd be surprised if this was very widespread in California. – curiousdannii Oct 13 '15 at 8:26
  • google search yields babycenter.com/…. My reason for thinking this is from experience working in a classroom, and having gone through public school speech therapy when I was very young, and thus conversation with teachers/therapists/etc. It's really very widespread, and I would expect it to actually be basically everywhere, not just here. – the dark wanderer Oct 13 '15 at 9:04
  • also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhotacism – the dark wanderer Oct 13 '15 at 9:05
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    /$'theta'$/ is another sound kids have a lot of trouble with, fyi, but that's a bit outside the scope of the question. – the dark wanderer Oct 13 '15 at 9:08
  • A comment below made me wonder if some American dialects are using a very different r sound to me. My r is an alveolar approximant and the tip of the tongue doesn't touch anything. If an r sound is being made where the tip of the tongue does touch the roof of the mouth then it would be very similar to an l. – curiousdannii Oct 13 '15 at 9:12
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Generally, yes. But it's not an ability held solely by native English speakers. People with a first language that observes a difference between /l/ and /r/ tend to be able to grasp that difference more easily, and the /l/ and /r/ difference is observed in a number of non-English languages.

Similarly, sounds that don't exist, or are far less common, in English (like the alveolar-tap used to make part of the りゃ sound) tend to be much harder for native-English speakers to identify and reproduce. For example, it's often difficult to hear that りゃ is not the same as リヤ, which also may make it difficult to learn to produce りゃ instead of リーヤ or リヤ.

If you really wanted to get into the specifics of who tends to be able to identify which sounds, in English that field of study is called Phonotactics. (But that may be more research than you wanted for this question.)

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    Nice answer, but that's not phonotactics, though at all. Phonotactics is more about combinations of sounds. What you're talking about is phonetics. – Araucaria Oct 12 '15 at 23:29
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    "Similarly, sounds that don't exist, or are far less common, in English (like the alveolar-tap used to make part of the りゃ sound) tend to be much harder for native-English speakers to identify and reproduce" Actually, it's a pretty easy sound for many American English speakers to make. It's the sound in the middle of "middle", "water", "puddle", and the last syllable of "Toyota", for me. Granted, most don't notice the difference until it's explicitly mentioned, and hearing it may be more difficult, but it's easy to feel in the mouth. – Joshua Taylor Oct 14 '15 at 17:45
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    There's actually a whole Wikipedia article on the aveolar flap in English. – Joshua Taylor Oct 14 '15 at 17:46
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Even though I'm not a native speaker, I can clearly hear the difference, it's much bigger than between, let's say U and Ü!

PHYSICALLY L and R can't sound similar, as your tongue has completely different shape in each case! (note: sorry to English language teachers - I don't know the proper terminology)

While "L" is pronounced with tip of your tongue twisted up (probably resting on alveoral ridge), the "R" is pronounced (depending on surrounding sounds) with front or back on your tongue raised up to (or resting on) hard palate. Different shape, different airflow, different resonance. Dramatically different sound!

OK - edit! I looked it up and it is even different:

For 'r':

  • Your tongue curls up around the edges, and you blow air through the middle of your tongue.
  • The top part of your tongue does not touch the top of your mouth.
  • Your lips should be slightly rounded.

For 'l':

  • The top of your tongue should touch the top of your mouth.
  • Your lips should not be rounded
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    PHYSICALLY L and R can't sound similar They "can't"? Then why is it that the stereotypical Asian will make mistake such as saying "Rara" or "Lala" instead of "Lara"? You should take this into consideration and edit your answer. – ANeves Oct 12 '15 at 13:12
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    For me (native English speaker), L and R are made in exactly the same way, except that for L, my tongue tip is touching the back of my upper teeth, and for R it's touching the roof of my mouth. Everything else--shape of mouth and lips, airflow, etc--is exactly the same. It still produces two completely distinct and recognizable sounds. – Mason Wheeler Oct 12 '15 at 19:14
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    @MasonWheeler except -> not exactly, then. – njzk2 Oct 13 '15 at 14:53
  • @ANeves that's because they're not making the same shape with their mouth and tongue as native speakers do. so yes, the difference is of course entirely physical, as sound directly relates to what your mouth does. if a person's "L" and "R" sound the same, they're not shaping one of them correctly. – ell Oct 14 '15 at 17:55
  • @MasonWheeler my mouth is definitely slightly different for R and L. for R, my lips are almost shut, if not touching. for L my lips are further apart and sort of puckered out a bit. i bet it's the same for you. – ell Oct 14 '15 at 17:58
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I'm not a native speaker, but me and my many friends do speak English as a second language. It's not a problem for us when we are listening to a native speaker, but it's hard to distinguish L and R when a Korean or Japanese speaks.

I remember we mistook a Korean song lyric "ring a ring a ring" for "ling a ling a ling".

(song in question: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4h1SixKJSKs)

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    Ha-ha. For me they sing "ringa-linga-lin". The first one is r, the other two arent. I am a native Russian speaker. Also for what it worth, the first two are pronounced palatalized and the last one is not (this is phonemic distinction in Russian). So in Russian I would say they sing "ринга-линга-лын" – Anixx Oct 14 '15 at 4:40
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You might be completely capable of discriminating these two sounds, but not remembering that they use two different letters. Try to pay closer attention and see if that is the case.

For example, I know a person who cannot tell whether a colour is blue or turquoise, but when seen side by side, can always identify that the both are different and one is bluer or greener than the other. Therefore, it’s not an issue of colour blindness, but instead of memory and attention.

This could be the same with you, when you could hear both /r/ and /l/ one after another and identify that they are distinct sounds, but if you wanted to pick a letter to represent either sound, you couldn’t. So your issue might not be sound-deafness or indistinction.

You can test that by taking recordings, cutting out the culprit sounds and listening to them or asking a native speaker to help you. Forget about letters and your difficulties, assign a number or colour to one or another sound, or just a yes/no. Focus on the properties of the sounds themselves, figure out if you can hear that they are different, not that they belong together or apart.

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As the other answers say, most native speakers have no problem with differentiating pronunciation. However, I'd like to point out something about deviations from this norm.

First, there are quite a few native accents, many being characterized by their unique R sound in fact. However, even between communicators with vastly different accents communication is fairly easy, and each can even correctly spell most words spoken by the other.

Second, even within a single accent, R and L and other letters might be pronounced in different ways depending on context or spelling. In British English, for example, R is usually pronounced softly ("ah") at the end of a word like "colour", and strongly ("rr") at the start of a word like "really". In some British accents, the word "are" sees the R pronounced softly while the slightly different word "aren't" has a strong R sound. Most importantly, these differences are rarely learned through explicit instruction - they're picked up through observation. Children recognize these different sounds and have no trouble mapping them to the word spellings they learn.

Third, people from certain non-English backgrounds who are learning English or else never take the time to develop their pronunciation may have trouble pronouncing certain letters in English with phonemes that don't exist in their native tongue. Sometimes (and perhaps politically incorrectly, but certainly most illustratively) the resulting accent is referred to as "engrish". These, too, are fairly easily understood by most native speakers.

Fourth, there are some typical speech impediments, such as rhotacism, which cause the afflicted to drastically mispronounce R and/or L. These people are still easily understood by other native speakers.

Ultimately, my point is this: even among native speakers, pronunciation of R and L and any other letters can vary greatly for many reasons, and yet all are generally well-understood. It's one of the interesting powers of the human brain which language reveals: the ability to effectively match vaguely similar speech patterns to the ideas they're intended to represent.

In short, there is no universally perfect pronunciation in English. As long as it's close enough, it can be understood, and that's just fine. You can only "improve" your own pronunciation by using the same accent as the one which the person you're communicating to is most familiar with.

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Yes, We generally distinguish it well. In my experience, Japanese learners of English generally pronounce both as "l", giving us the stereotypical joke about "flied lice". I had a Japanese friend named Hiromi and she pronounced her own name as "Hilomi", so I think part of the confusion goes back to whoever decided how to transliterate Japanese into English.

So, the sound that most Japanese make for "r/l" is probably "l". The best advice I can give for how to actually pronounce "r" is to listen to a growling dog. We write it imitatively as "Grrr". If you can then tell the difference between this growling sound and the softer "l", it might help.

protected by snailcar Oct 14 '15 at 14:44

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