There's a saying in Hong Kong kung fu movies: “Wai faai bat po.”
It means "only speed is unbreakable."
“Wai faai bat po.”
That's in Cantonese, a language with tones, which English speakers have trouble distinguishing.
So when an American says that phrase with the wrong tones— “wifi bat po”—you get a Cantonese meme.
"It became kinds of a joke that people will send to each other. It's like oh, this badass wi-fi is so good."
“Wai faai bat po.” -"It's quite funny."
If English is your first language though, you might be more familiar with a different joke: “Supplies!”
That's the notion that East Asians mix up their Rs and Ls in English: “Oh herro prease.”
It's a running gag in "Lost in Translation," an Oscar-winning film about two Americans who are sad in Japan.
“Lat pack. You know lat pack?”
“Rat? Rat pack.”
The movie makes communication with the locals seem hopeless.
“Lip my stocking.” “Hey? Lip them?”
And at one point Scarlett Johansson's character asks: "Why do they switch the Rs and the L's here?"
"Oh, for yucks."
This movie may be a bit rude, but it's not a terrible question to ask.
Because if you're genuinely curious, a foreign accent gives us a chance to learn something about another language.
So this trope has been applied to Japanese, Korean, and Chinese speakers.
"McFry!" "Herro." "Fa ra ra ra ra."
But, all of these languages deal with Rs and Ls in different ways.
First though, we need to talk about the R sound in English.
It turns out that there isn't just one way to pronounce it.
"Oh it's incredibly varied."
Eleanor Lawson uses ultrasound to study English phonetics.
"You have trilled R's which are sort of a rrr sound. You can probably hear my tapped R. So I do a ara sound. Varied. You can have a retroflex R where your tongue essentially curls upside down under your palatal arch."
"Run. Run." She says the bunched R, which is common in North American English, is particularly complex.
Say the word fur, Fur.
How would you tell someone where to put their tongue to make that R?
The middle of the tongue rises up in the mouth, while the root of the tongue is pulling backwards.
You might have some lip rounding as well.
R sounds like this, where the airflow isn't blocked by the tongue or the lips, are called the “approximates” in phonetics.
"So forming all of these structures at the same time could be very difficult for someone who is not used to producing that."
The R sound is one of the last consonants that English-speaking kids learn to say.
It takes up to 5 adorable years for them to figure it out.
“Purple. And red!”
And the L sound in English can change depending on its position in a word.
Say the word “ladle” or “level.”
That first L is a "clear L." You can probably feel your tongue touching the top of the mouth, right behind your front teeth as in “led.”
But the L at the end of the word is a “dark L," where the tip of the tongue might not even touch the top of your mouth at all.
"A dark L is where the back of the tongue is moving up toward the soft palate and it gives it an o-ish sound like an O."
So the English R and L are complicated, but still, "Lat Pack," rrr, llll, they seem like pretty different sounds.
It might help to look at Spanish.
Say the word "salero."
“Salero. Salt Shaker. Salero, salero.”
This R is made with a flap of the tongue on the ridge behind the front teeth.
That's not too far away from where the L is pronounced.
"Hora. Varios. Oruga. Pare. Salero."
Japanese has that R sound. It doesn't have the lll in “lake” or the rrr in “red.”
"We have ra ri ru re ro, which sounds kind of similar to both L and R."
Those are the 5 syllables in Japanese that contain the tongue-flap sound: “ra ri ru re ro."
Try saying them: “ra ri ru re ro.”
When they're converted into the Latin alphabet, they're spelled like this, with the letter R.
But the Japanese R sound “ra” is actually closer to our L sound “la” than it is to the English "ra."
"My name is Mariko and for all of my English-speaking friends, their intuition to say is marie-ko. And how I explain to them is just imagine my name spelled with M-a-l-i-k-o and then you should be fine."
When words migrate from English to Japanese, both Rs and Ls become Japanese Rs.
There are thousands of these loan words that Japanese speakers have to relearn with rrrs and llls, which are two sounds that Japanese ears weren't tuned to distinguish in the first place.
Like Japanese, Korean doesn't have the English rrr sound. They have this letter. It's "rieul."
"Like my tongue is going straight up to the roof of my mouth, eul."
"Rieul." It takes on a different sound depending on its position within the word.
So when it's followed by a vowel, it has the flap sound like a Japanese R.
That also means it's written with the letter “R” when converted into Latin script. “Duriseo.”
But when it's at the end of a word "jebal" or is followed by a consonant "deullida," it sounds more like an L sound and it's transcribed in the Latin alphabet as “L.”
So it's pretty unlikely that Korean speakers would say “herro” since their L sound can map on to the English L.
But the “dark L” doesn't exist in Korean.
So when they're new to English, Koreans might use their own L sound in spots where we would use a dark L, near the end of words.
“As the story unfolds, someone may change the world.”
There are at least 8 major Chinese languages, but we'll look at Mandarin and Cantonese.
They both have a clear L sound, and it's restricted to the beginning of syllables.
"Leng. It's like 'pretty.'"
So the notion that they would switch “fa la la" into “fa ra ra,” it's just wrong and the makers of a Christmas story should feel bad.
Like Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese don't have the dark L sound as in “pull.”
But when they come across an L near the end of a word in English, they tend to pronounce it more like a vowel.
"A hundred years old, 90 years old. I said we should respect this kind of people."
"He chose the coldest possible. Really."
Mandarin does have an R sound.
At the beginning of a syllable, it sounds like this: "Zrr. Zrr. So like actually, maybe the R sounds more like the S in "treasure."
And at the end of a syllable: "Er. It means son."
Cantonese, on the other hand, doesn't have an R sound at all.
So when speaking English, they sometimes use a W sound or an L sound.
"We just tried very hard to prove ourselves."
Our ability to produce sounds in a new language, depends in part on whether those sounds are meaningfully distinct in our first language.
So a Japanese speaker hearing lll and rrr, it's a lot like an English speaker hearing tones in Chinese.
"Leng. Leng. Leng. Leng."
"Ma. Ma. Ma. Ma. Yeah, I know, people's mind is just blown away."
We all carry the rules of our native language with us when we learn new languages.
"Accent is your identity. So I don't want to sound like an American person or British person."
So if you hear a foreign accent, remember that it's a unique hybrid.
It's like a lion with stripes, something you can only get if you're brave enough to venture beyond the comfort of your mother tongue.
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