Thai People Can say R and L, really.

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Unlike the Japanese, who have no strong R and L, we Thais can say those sounds just fine. We have a perfectly good R/ร, and use it all the time – the Thai word for love รัก/rák starts with it and many others.  We have a lovely L/ล, too. We couldn’t say monkey ลิง/ling or hundreds of other important words without it.
Now I’m the first to admit we do have some problems with final R’s and L’s when first learn English.  At first L’s at the end sound like N’s.

That makes “noodle” and “school” sound like “nooden” and “schoon” until we get used to the sounds.
I freely confess that we don’t have the rigid distinctions between R and L that the English do.  Fact is, we prefer not to be rigid about most things.  We can say the letters, but we’re comfortable being a little casual about them.  Every Thai can say the important word “อะไร/ à-rai” (something, what, etc) with a beautifully trilled ร/R, but when we’re talking fast and need a repeat, we’ll say อะไรนะ/à-rai ná (huh?,what was that ?) and to a foreigner it will sound a lot like อะไลนะ/à-lai ná.  It’s not because we can’t say the ร/R – we’re just comfortable and flexible.
This can lead to some สนุก/sà-nùk/fun.  Ask any Thai person you know to say “library” and see if you can hear the different between “ R” and “L”.

It’s took me years to say it correctly but if I say it without thinking, I will still make the mistakes “ liblaly” lol
There’s a new stationery store sign in my town of Chiang Mai that’s getting some double takes. It says, in big letters, ล้านเครื่องเขียน/ láan krêung kǐan.  To a Thai who isn’t listening carefully will sound just like ร้านเครื่องเขียน/ráan krêung kǎan.

Thai sign

ร้าน/ráan means store.  เครื่อง/krêung are instruments or supplies, and เขียน/kǐan is writing, which all leads to a very ordinary name for a stationery supply house.  But /ล้าน/láan (which in casual speech sounds a lot like ráan ) means a million.  So the store’s been cleverly named A Million Writing Supplies. Most Thais won’t catch it until they look at the sign and notice the spelling. It took me a few second to figure it out and took a snap shot.

Let’s me sum it up for you,
ร้านเครื่องเขียน /ráan krêung kǎan/a stationery supply house.
ล้านเครื่องเขียน/ láan krêung kǐan/A Million Writing Supplies.
Make sense?!  pretty cleaver, isn’t it?

Fun with the written word, and yet another reason to learn to read Thai!

Don’t forget to ask your Thai friend to say “library”, let me know what you hear?

18 thoughts on “Thai People Can say R and L, really.

  1. Hi Mia,
    that is really clever. I might say though that I have huge difficulty in trying to distinguish the letters in modern Thai writing, especially the ‘l’, ‘n’ and ‘ng’ above. They look so different to me from your teachings,

  2. Hai Mia,
    Thanks for the confirmation about the issue.
    Honestly, I just got a task from my lecture of how I should teach English to thai students concerning the /l/ and /r/ issues often made by them whenever words contain those letters.
    If you’ve got some tips or strategies, you may e-mail me to

    Best regards,
    Danar, a student of English Education Department in Yogyakarta State University, Indonesia

    • Hi Danar,
      How interesting ! if you don’t mind please share your knowledge on hoe to teach English to Thai students concerning the the /l/ and /r/, I would love to know.
      All in know is, when say the /L/ the tip of the tongue should touch the upper teeth.
      What do you think?


      • Mia,
        I’m sorry to say this, but I think you got a little bit confused of my sentence in the following: “I just got a task from my lecture of how I should teach English to thai students concerning the /l/ and /r/ ”

        I think I need to clarify this.
        Actually I ask for your help or recommendation if there is any of how I should teach Thai students. Were I to give a solution, I would probably say “I just got a task from my lecture of how to teach English to thai students concerning the /l/ and /r/”

        That’s why I said, “If you’ve got some tips or strategies etc.”
        Thanks any way,
        Danar recently posted.. ARTISTEER FULL VERSION [CRACKED]My Profile

  3. Hi Mia,

    Thais and east Asian people in general should not worry about pronouncing R’s and L’s “correctly”. A western person will most always know what you are saying and just consider it an accent. Accents are nice.

    I have three R’s in my full name. My wife’s mother is from Japan and after almost 30 years she still can’t say my name “correctly”. That’s OK though, I like the way she says it!

    I’m learning Thai and I know I’m never going to say a word like “tam-ngaan” correctly. But, I won’t use that word much because I don’t like working anyway!

  4. Hi Mia
    Here’s a tip to teach Thai students to pronounce the “l” sound at the end of an English word. Thais can say “lao” easily enough. So, when you have a word such as “will” or “ball” get them to say “will – lao” or “ball – lao”. When they’ve learned to say this, tell them to say the “lao” part of it in their heads but to enunciate the first part. When they’ve “taught their mouth” they can forget about “lao”

  5. Hi Mia!

    I think you made a mistake at the very first sentence. What makes you think/believe that Japanese don’t use any strong R or L ? I lived in Japan a while and can speak good Japanese and can write both Katakana and Hiragana. The Japanese know how to use a R and a L unlike you Thais who always confuse the R and the L. How I know that? I stayed in Thailand a few years and speak fluent Thai. Also I can write Thai and stayed in many different areas all over the country. I agree that Thais like the easy way and don’t see a problem making a L out of a R but it leaves anybody else confused. The other issue is the bad quality of education in Thailand if it comes to English. I love Thailand and the Thai people but I think they should improve with their language skills. The main problem is the education as I said. The children learn to speak wrong English at the schools and will not be able to improve a lot when they’re older. Anyway you should be very sure about what you are talking about before giving other people lessons. The Thais speak much worse English than you are admitting here. In my experience they would say “za-coon” instead of “school”. The other problem is that they are not really willing to learn. I was teaching Thais a million times how to pronounce and spell English words but they would always use the wrong words again and even teach those wrong words to others. If it comes to Thai I am sure 90% of all Thais get the R and the L confused BUT they know how it’s spoken right and written as well. If it comes to English I am sure that 99% of all Thais get R and L as well as H or TH confused which leads to huge misunderstandings with foreigners. I am pretty sure Thais often don’t know what they are talking about in English. I don’t understand why they don’t use the small afford to look the word up on the internet or learn how to pronounce it from native sources like foreign TV or music ? I don’t try to make Thais look bad here but I speak from experience. Once again, what experience did you have with Japanese to start your article/lecture like that?

  6. Sebastian misunderstands. Mia’s article is not a treatise on comparative linguistics, but another example of her great teaching style. Here she helps students understand a point about the Thai language through a clever use of examples.

    If Sebastian is curious I’d be happy to provide him with several scholarly articles on the use of L and R sounds in Asia which support fully Mia’s opening sentence, though in highly technical language.

    I suspect he might not be curious because in spite of his claim to fluency in Thai, he fails to appreciate or respect the culture that underlies the languages and in fact created it. Thai people pronounce L and R the way they do for highly complex linguistic reasons, not because they are lazy or because of an inferior educational system.

    Sebastian himself writes in a rather ungrammatical English, which is nonetheless understandable. He deserves congratulations for learning English and using it, in spite of many errors. I suspect he also has an accent when he speaks English. I would not criticize him or claim he is lazy simply because he has failed to perfect his grammar and syntax. On the contrary, I applaud his accomplishment. He might extend the same courtesy to Thai people who have worked hard to learn English.

  7. The use of an ” L” in place of an ” R” can be very confusing for foreigners. An ” R” sound and an ” L” sound are completely different. This article seems to suggest that they are so similar that they are sometimes interchanged. I learned the Thai word for ” Boat” ; ” Rhua” but when I hear someone say ” Leua” I have no idea that they mean ” boat”. This might sound like a joke, but it is true. For years I heard of the place called ” Bullylamb” and when when a Farang said to me that he and his wife had gone to visit her home in ” Burriram”, I quite honestly replied that I had not heard of that place. An ” r” sound and an ” L” sound are completely different and it caused me a lot of difficulty in understanding what was being said every time an ” L” was used in place of an ” R”. Essentially I had to learn two alternative Thai words for many things, and it still caused very much confusion. What I find so difficult to understand is why so many Thai people cannot pronounce the ” R” letter, when their own alphabet has the letter, and it is used at the beginning of so many Thai words. For example, if a Thai were to point to the ignition key of a motorbike and say ” Leum” what he probably means is ” Rheum” which is start, but Lheum means ” forget”. I would be left scratching my head wondering what it is that he wants me to forget. Thais not pronouncing their own letter ” R” in Thai words causes endless non understanding of foreigners who are trying to learn Thai.

  8. Another very small thing that I have difficulty in understanding, is how Thai people talk to each other about Termites. There are essentially three alternative words in use for Termites: “Pleuak”; ” Pooak”; and ” Pawak”. The first of which I have been advised is the Central Thai language officially correct version. The problem however is that most people only know one of the three options. When I have previously talked about the issue of Termites to Thai people, I have had to work my way through all three versions of the word, until I found the one that that particular individual recognised. How on earth do Thai people talk to each other about Termites?

  9. Florian Kolle says:

    I’ve been wondering for a long time why Thais seem unable to distinguish between ร and ล. We would never call a lion “rion” or a rabbit “labbit”. It’s a prejudice among Westeners that Asians can’t pronounce R. But Thais actually can, they just like to mix it up all the time. I’m not talking about Thais speaking English, I mean Thais speaking Thai. It appears that northern dialects prefer ล while southern dialect prefers ร. Once i called some hotline and the voice said เรากำรังโอนสายไปที่เจ้าหน้าที่. Or that time when my friend parked his car and the security asked for his number plate. My friend said รอ คอ 1234, and the guy repeated รอ ริง คอ ควาย 1234.
    Do Thais really make no difference in the sound? I’ve asked many Thai friends about this, but could never get an answer.

  10. I stumbled on this thread after searching “how to say american r for thai people” because my wife can’t say an american “r” to save her life. We’re still working on it. My latest approach has been to show her some x-ray videos of people speaking English, and pointing out what the tongue is doing and then pointing out Thai sounds having similar positions. I think it’s helping.

    This is funny: “I freely confess that we don’t have the rigid distinctions between R and L that the English do. ” No kidding. My wife is from บุรีรัมย์ (sp?) but half the people I met there say บุลีลัมย์ but if you ask them how to say ร they sound like Italians trrrrrrrilling their Rs.

    For Americans, this is terrible. L and R are DISTINCTIVE FEATURES

    So, going back to the original post, Thai people do NOT generally know the difference between L and R
    To an English speaker, R and L are Night and Day. Completely different sounds.

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