Teaching English /r/ and /l/ to Asian EFL learners: a lexical approach
University of Fukui, Japan
English /r/, /l/ and contrasts between these two categories of sounds are often cited as pronunciation and listening perception problems for a variety of EFL learners, most from E. Asia. The language backgrounds most often associated with these problems are Japanese, Korean, Chinese and some languages of SE Asia (e.g. Thai but also Cantonese Chinese). Other language speakers have also expressed an interest in improving their pronunciation of English /r/ and /l/, including Russian and German EFL learners.
Perhaps the most well-known group to have a problem with the two categories of sounds is Japanese EFL learners. This could be because their native language background creates the most difficult problems to overcome. It could also be because Japan attained affluence before most of the rest of Asia and hired native speakers of English to help teach and model the language. So a lot of information based on knowledge and experience of Japanese and Japanese learners of EFL has been exchanged and discussed in 'global ELT'.
In the case of Japanese learners of English, just what is the issue? The most common account is based on a simple 'contrastive analysis'. Japanese is said to have one categorical sound (or phoneme) whereas English has two. The Japanese sound is often referred to as a type of [r] that is tapped, flapped or trilled. The Japanese sound never closes a syllable and has a very limited distribution in Japanese. One form of the Japanese /r/ helps to form the syllables used in grammatical inflections (such as verb forms). Word-initial Japanese /r/ is limited to words of foreign origin.
English-speaker descriptions of the Japanese sound or of the Japanese learner of English's sound represent the Japanese sound as variably resembling English /l/, /r/, or /d/ (especially [d] in the middle of a word, like in the word 'middle'). Phonetic descriptions have also said that the American medial voiced [t] of words such as 'little' are quite like the Japanese /r/.
However, it is not really clear how useful a cross-linguistic, contrastive analysis of phoneme inventories is in diagnosing the problems or in helping Japanese learners of English to overcome them. For one thing, the often-read argument that Japanese has only ONE phoneme, Japanese /r/, is arguably wrong. That is because, using structuralist criteria for determining what is and what is not a phoneme, we can isolate at least two Japanese [r] sounds that are distinct: initial [r] in the word 'rou' ('candle') from palatalized intial [r] in 'ryou' ('dormitory').
It is also misleading to teach EFL learners that there is one English /r/ and one English /l/. That is because they will hear native and fluent speakers of English make a wide array of both sounds in actual speech. In terms of articulation, there is a wide variety within both categories of sounds. Interestingly, the distribution in the lexicon of English [r] sounds strongly parallels English [l] sounds: word-initial ('right' vs. 'light'), word-initial cluster unvoiced ('crime' vs. 'climb'), word-initial cluster voiced ('grow' vs. 'glow'), post-vocalic ('fear' vs. 'feel'), medial ('correct' vs. 'collect'), and unstressed syllabic ('batter' vs. 'battle').
There is some complementary distribution if we consider clusters: [tr-] as in 'true' but no [tl-], [sl] as in 'slide' but no [sr-], [shr-] as in 'shred' but no [shl] (except some loan words), and [l] can cluster with [r] post-vocalically, as in 'girl' or 'world' but not vice versa. Moreover, since both of these sound categories tend toward 'vowel-like', it is not surprising that in some cases they might reduce to a vowel or vowel lengthening in some accents, dialects and word contexts (such as post-vocalic [r] in London, Boston and NY Englishes, or the lost [l] of the word 'chalk').
Given the variety of English /r/ and /l/ sounds and how they parallel each other in the lexicon of English, it is little wonder that EFL learners, even after they have practiced making an English /r/ vs. /l/ distinction, lose the ability when actually communicating orally. Therefore, it is best to teach--over a period of time and through a variety of activities--the full parallel variety of English /r/ and /l/ sounds as found in the most frequent words of the lexicon. A proposed sequence is this: first the variety of English /r/s, then the variety of English /l/s, then /r/ vs. /l/ contrasts in common words, then a follow up on the variety of post-vocalic [r]s in rhotic accents, such as US and Canadian Englishes.
In the next installment we will look at an instructional sequence which includes explanation of basic classroom procedures and many examples from the beginner's lexicon of English.