Japanese "R" in the Beginning of a Word vs in the Middle

I am new to Japanese, but have gotten a wast idea of how the pronunciation of the Japanese “R” is. I have watched Tofugus youtube video and some others as well. I have noticed that the “R” sound is kind of different when in the start of a word than when in the middle. For example, when saying six, ろく, or the “Rs” themself らりるれろ, the “R” sound a little more similar to the English “L”. However, when the R is in the middle of the word, for example circle, まる, it sound more like a rolling R sound (which isnt really in the English language as far as I know). I have never heard anyone talk about how the Japanese R differs based on this, but for me the differentiation seems important. Is this true?
If it is, then I think I manage to pronounce the R when it is in the beginning based on Tofugus video. When it is in the middle, I make a mix between an rolling R and a L with the tongue going upwards. Does this sound reasonable?
Thank you.

1 Like

Personally, I visualize the sound as basically a single flap of the rolled R. I.e. to make the rolled R sound, your tongue repeatedly slaps against the roof of your mouth, letting through air in between. Just a single one of those.

Its actually quite similar to a single ‘r’ in Spanish, like for example in ‘pero’ (but), not to be confused with the rolled ‘r’ in ‘perro’ (dog).


What Ornantius describe is accurate, but I should reiterate that the Japanese don’t really distinguish different sounds for らりるれろ。Whenever you find patterns like those that you described, it’ll be a personal thing (in this case, the guy who recorded it) and it’ll differ if it’s someone else, some other region of Japan, etc. There isn’t a rule, nor will they actually notice if you speak everything with an L, or everything with an R. The actual sound is an in-between from R to L, so that gives them enough fluidity to sometimes, depending on the person and/or word, go from a stronger R sound, to a stronger L sound.

I’ve met people who speak mostly with L sounding syllables, and people who never do. I could go so far as to say R sound is the most common.

It truly is nothing like the American R, though.


Thinking about it, one of the stereotypical delinquent things to do is rolling the r, so even that’s fine :slight_smile: .
I think the main point is just that it happens in the front of the mouth and there is some contact between your tongue and the roof of the mouth. (English just kind of brings them close to each other, and in German we make our Rs in the back of the throat)


Many languages have similar sounding Rs, such as Russian, Hindi, most of the Romance languages, etc. But none of them, as far as I know, are quite like Japanese, with its fluidity of going either L or R. The position/form of the tongue must be slightly different for that.

In this sense, it reminds me of the European Portuguese (and Spanish) B/V interchangeability, historically and, in some regions, still very present. Although, I do think they recognize when they speak one or the other.


To get to the nitty gritty technical details, you are actually noticing a real difference phonetically that is extremely common.

This really depends on the sound that comes directly before this “r” sound. In ろく, good example by the way, it is very common to use what is called an alveolar tap, where the tongue just taps the ridge behind your upper front teeth just once. This produces that hard L sound. This can also happen at the end of a word, for example, こころ.

For r’s that are in the middle of a word, テレビ (this is a personal example, as said before, this can change based on the person speaking), you will perform what’s called an alveolar approximant, which just means that your tongue is near (or touching) the ridge behind the upper teeth but it’s not “tapping” it, meaning a smoother sound (more R like, or a soft L, also known as a “clear” L).

Hope this helps!


This topic was automatically closed 365 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.