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Distinguishing the R & L


WRITTEN BY: Elizabeth Harriman


NOTE: When referring to the alphabet letters 'R' & 'L' in this article, they will simply be written as uppercase letters.



The R and L sounds are probably the toughest English sounds for Japanese learners of English. It's made even more difficult by the fact that the L and R are made somewhat differently depending on the sounds that surround them in words.  Here's how I teach it by from the American English perspective. 


Teaching the R:


IMPORTANT: There are a couple of different sounds for the letter R.  At the basics of distinguishing the R from L, I start with the 'vocalic R'.  The 'vocalic R' is the sound of the R when it is attached to a vowel rather than at the beginning of a word.  For example, the sound of R in the word "rat" sounds different from the sound of R in "art".  The sound of R when the letter comes at the beginning of a word is different than when it comes in the middle of a word and preceded by a vowel.  The sound of R after vowels, 'vocalic R',  is more like an R coloring to a vowel.

  • Have them make an "ah" sound with a wide open mouth, noting that their tongue is sitting down at the bottom of their mouth, right behind their lower teeth. Have them make an "ee" sound, with a wide grin. Have them also make an "oh" sound, with their lips rounded. They must practice these seemingly simple vowel sounds for at least one session. The key is for them to make the vowels with correct mouth postures, NO tongue movement during each sound, and NO jaw movement either. Give practice for homework, to be done in front of a mirror.
  • Next session, do the same sounds, and keep the jaw completely still, but practice moving the tongue forward and backward while making the vowel sounds. The resulting sounds should result in them making silly sounds, usually an inexact cross between the original vowels and the vowels plus the R sound. At this point, forward/backward mobility of the tongue with stability of the jaw is the goal. This may take a session or two. Again, give homework to be done in front of a mirror.
  • When the task becomes consistently easy and automatic, go on to the next step, which is forming those random forward and back movements into real vowel plus R sounds. Start with the "AR" sound, as that is the easiest to see in a mirror. Say "AR" three times, slowly, with a wide open mouth, and have the students try to copy you. Give them a thumbs up (perfect), thumbs down (not yet) or horizontal thumb (almost) for each production, so they know if they're on the right track. Have other students give ratings to their peers' productions as well, for listening practice.
  • When the AR sound is mastered, try the "IR" sound and "OR" sound.  Then, try the same sounds with a consonant sound in front of them, as in words such as car, bar, hear, deer, sore, more. Then, add more sounds, as in words such as stars, hardly, unclear, fearsome, deplore, before. After that, put the words in short, and eventually longer, sentences to practice.
  • Usually once the vocalic R is mastered, the R sound at the beginning of words becomes much easier. If it doesn't come naturally, you can let the students add a little vowel sound before the R if that helps them (uhrabbit, uhradio, etc.). Gradually fade out the vowel sound.
  • For some students, R blends (grass, brown, trade) are the hardest of all, usually because these require a lot of quick tongue movement. You can have them try adding a little extra vowel sound in here, too (guhrass, buhrown, tuhrade) if that increases their intelligibilty, but this is not a great habit to start. Probably better to just practice these blends a whole heck of a lot, without any added vowel crutches.


Teaching the L:

  • Teaching the L sound for me is really easy if the students are kids, and really hard if the students are adults. With kids, I use the tongue bite strategy. They stick out their tongues as far as the tongue will go, then lightly bite down on the protruded tongue and say the L sound. It will sound a little strangled and silly. Do this a few times. The point is to realize that the very tip of the tongue, so important in the Japanese language, is not as important for the American sound of L.  We sometimes use the tongue tip, but often use the area right behind the tongue tip, or both areas. The next step is for them to continue making an L sound while very slowly sliding their tongue back into their mouth. The very slowly part is important here because you are going to stop them when their L sound is ideal. When you say stop, they immediately freeze their tongue position and say the sound repeatedly in this position. Similar to the R sound practice, it helps if you model the sound three times, then they copy you three times with feedback and encouragement from you and the other English teacher(s).
  • Once the students have the L sound in isolation, move on to simple syllables, then more complex words, then short and finally longer sentences. Again, blends (blue, glove, place) will probably be a real challenge. It may help to tell them to have their tongue in the L sound position before even making the proceeding sound. The hardest words of all will probably be those with both R and L sounds in the same word (girl, squirrel, Carol). Those may never be easy, but a lot of practice does help.












Old Comments:


  • (Sept 1, 2011) Aimee said: When I teach the R sound I tell them to pronounce the う sound as in the Japanese aiueo then round out their mouth (pucker their lips) I remind them that their tongue shouldn't move.
    (Jan 6, 2011) Zed said: 'r' functions as either a vowel or a consonant.All those 'r colored vowels' are not 'r colored vowels', they are 'vowel r'. It is a unique vowel sound and it has almost no relation to the letter we put before it. Most linguistic texts will transcribe this sound as 'ər', but I find it preposterous because there's no 'ə' in the way we pronounce 'bird'. Phonetically, it's just 'brd'. This is different from 'semivowel r', as in 'red' or 'rabbit'. This is sound is a semivowel because it a consonant built off of a vowel sound in the same way 'y' comes from the long 'ee' sound, and 'w' comes from the long 'u' sound. So I start off teaching the 'vowel r' sound, which I describe as vowel that sounds like a dog growling. They catch it quick, and master it through constant practice both in elementary school and middle school. To then explain 'consonant r', you tell them to make the 'vowel r' sound, and make an 'oo' shape with their mouths. This is not the only way to make the 'consonant r' sound, but it's the easiest one to teach.
    For 'l', you just teach them to touch the tip of their tongue to back of their front teeth. They learn the sound almost immediately, though, like all pronunciation learning, takes lots of practice for them to master.
  • (May 20, 2010) Kimberly R. said: For me this seems like a really complicated explanation. I've been teaching English pronunciation to adult japanese students for more than a year now, and I wanted to suggest a simpler way to teach it, not to suggest that I think any of the info here is wrong, or that my way is better. I just think that it's a bit simpler, especially for those ALTs who are not from a linguistics background. The following still gets very good results.
    For "L": I tend to explain that the air comes out the sides of the mouth, so the tongue is used to make a wall just behind the front teeth. For "R": I tell the students that the air comes straight out of the middle of the mouth, so they must not let their tongues touch their teeth in order for this to happen. I also explain and demonstrate that in "R" the lips tend to make more of a circle, even for vowels such as "i" and "e" which generally require flat, spread lips.
    For me, this has worked very well with my students, but there have been a couple of students I've still needed to find a different way to introduce these two sounds.
    Anyway, that's my two cents worth, let me know your thoughts!
  • WRITTEN BY: HERE     ADDED: Mar 16, 2012



    This page was last modified on Thursday, January 29, 2015 02:25:12 PM