Pronunciation of “L” and “R” in Japanese

“My name is Lina.”
I say this as written (with the English “L”) when I meet strangers from other countries for the first time, and still I am frequently asked, “Is your name actually ‘Lina’ or is it ‘Rina’?”

This is understandable considering how Japanese people usually don’t distinguish between the English “L” and “R” sounds. In fact, when the Japanese language is sorted into its alphabet, about 16 consonants are used, and “L” is not one of them. Of course, it is true that there is no “L” pronunciation in Japanese, but there’s no “R” sound either. Accordingly, people might think there is no “L” pronunciation in Japanese and I’ve been pronouncing my name wrong this whole time. I’m personally much more comfortable calling myself “Lina” in English than I am calling myself “Rina”, and Lina is what is written in my passport.

The “R” pronunciation in Japanese is no more similar to the English pronunciation of “R”, than the English “R” is to the French or Spanish. When the Japanese pronounce “りんご(ringo*)”, it’s not “R”, as in the English “R” ock singer, “Ringo” Starr, and it is not rolled or trilled as it is in Spanish. While the Japanese “り” sounds somewhat similar to the English “L”, it is not exactly the same.
Funny story though, if you ask for “rice” in a Japanese restaurant in Japan, they might give you a quizzical look and wonder, “What is this foreigner asking?”, but if you ask instead for “lice” they will likely nod and say “Ah! Yes, lice! Of course!”

Anyways, it is clear that there is confusion on both sides of this “R” problem. For instance, when the Japanese hear someone say, “The Lord of the Rings”, both L and R are heard and recognized as the same sound. When I was just starting to study English, I was always confused and would say, “I like The Road of the Rings!” I’d even say, “My favourite character is Alagoln.” All throughout my childhood I watched fantasy movies with Japanese dubbing, so Lord, Ring, Aragorn, Tolkien, they all sounded exactly same in Japanese, and up until I was 16 I never once doubted that the title of Torkien’s series was, “The Road of the Rings”. It felt reasonable to me because the Fellowship of the Ring is on the road.

In the beginning you do not need to be nervous about pronouncing らりるれろ(ra/ri/ru/re/ro). You can be understood by Japanese speakers well enough, especially when you pronounce the sounds similar to L sound, it just will not sound like native Japanese. If you are advanced, I recommend you check your pronunciation with native speakers, and try to make it sound more Japanese-like. If you are struggling with the sound, try saying “butter” repeatedly and really fast. This can help with learning the proper positioning of the tongue for Japanese らりるれろ.

Finally, let me tell you the reason why my name is “Lina” in my passport. The more I listen carefully to it, the more I am able to recognize the difference between L and R sounds. Because I practiced and practiced, I realized I prefer “Lina” to “Rina”, and by the time I was 18 I was ready to study abroad. For that of course I needed a passport. When questioned about the pronunciation of my name, I simply explained that I have many friends, actually they were penpals at that time, calling me “Lina” and showed them some of the letters from them to prove it. The office approved りな, as the person with the official name in English written “Lina.”

*りんご(林檎): an apple

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