The English Mistake Taiwanese People Don’t Even Know They Make, And It’s Confusing & Funny As Hell

M or Ello?Sometimes language mistakes are so standardized that non-native speakers actually think they are correct. A fine example of this is “no problemo” used by many Americans to mean “no hay problema” in Spanish. Fortunately, the mutation is close enough to the original phrase that it doesn’t cause confusion.

But what if the mistake were significant enough to totally baffle the native listener? That’s exactly what happened to me at a coffee shop in Taipei last weekend!

To set the scene, I was at the counter ordering a cup of tea in Chinese. I’m pretty confident and well-practiced when it comes to using my Chinese skills to procure tea. There isn’t much that can go wrong in this simple transaction. I make my request, and the barista asks me questions like, “For here to go?” “Do you want sugar with that?” Etc.

Everything was going along swimmingly in Chinese until the barista asked, “妳要ello嗎?” (Do you want ello?) Nobody had ever asked me about “ello” before and I had never heard this word. But there are countless Chinese words I don’t know, so I cocked my head and asked, “Ello是什麼?” (What is ello?) The barista held up a paper cup. I must have looked even more confused. He held up another, smaller paper cup and asked, “M嗎?” (M?)

That was the clue that tipped me off and my confusion broke into a quiet chuckle. I smiled and said, “Ello就好了。” (Ello is just fine.)

He was asking if I wanted a size medium (M) or large (L) cup!

For some strange reason unbeknownst to me, Taiwanese people routinely pronounce the letter L like ello. No letter in English is pronounced with more than a single syllable, except W (because it just wouldn’t be English without exceptions, right?)

So where did this erroneous pronunciation for L come from? I am soliciting any tips or leads as to WHY this mistake persists in Taiwan in such a ubiquitous way. Please help me crack the case by leaving your theories, suggestions, ideas, clues, speculations, insights and funny ello stories in the comments below.

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31 Comments

  1. I’m Taiwanese. Here is my guess for that weird pronunciation: Since Japan had ruled Taiwan for 50 years, and the Japanese pronounce the letter L as “ellu”, Taiwanese people got used to this two-syllable style of pronunciation during the colonial period. And over time, “ellu” gradually evolved into “ello”. That may explain why this sound is so ubiquitous today, especially among elder generations, who are more influenced by the Japanese language.

  2. It’s a phonoligical cross linguistics issue. The consonant sounds in Mandarin Chinese are voiced, bo po mo fo. Therefore, when Mandarin Chinese speakers produce an English consonant, they tend to add an unnecessary schwa sound, thus this “ello”. Another letters to prove this fact, are m (emoo), x (ekesuh), s (esih).

      • Yes, I forgot to mention that some letters like m or s, are produced incorrectly by Taiwanese which haven’t received enough English lessons. In other words, heavy Taiwanese and Chinese accent.

  3. Basically, no words in Chinese end with a consonant sound. So new learners often add a vowel sound and struggle with Dog ‘dog-uh’ and other such words. Taiwanese teachers often don’t pick them up on their mistake, or fail to do so consistently, and the habit becomes consolidated and difficult to break. F as ‘Efu’ is another common example.

    • Yes, and many of those new learners form a life-long habit of mispronouncing certain words and sounds. With most mispronounced words spoken in some kind of English context, I am fairly capable of guessing. However, in the context of speaking Chinese, and throwing “ello” in the mix, I was totally confused! Next time I will be ready for it!

  4. I used to write “L O” on the board whenever my students said ello! Haha after a couple explanations, they got better at catching the mistake themselves.

    • That’s very clever! Because I don’t think they realize the O sound in ello sounds like the letter O. Probably seeing the sounds as two distinct letters helps them think about it differently. Thanks for sharing that!

  5. 這不算錯誤,又不是考試。是台灣人不會大驚小怪的。

    學語言本來就會產生不同的發音,你以為方言是從哪來的,美國東西南北的口音就不一樣了。

    • 這不是大驚小怪,
      而是把台灣人的積非成是的錯誤挑出來,
      本來就是錯的為何不改?

      When you are learning a second language, of course you will make tons of mistakes. But you won’t master it if you don’t take others’ comments/critics/suggestions and try to improve.
      I suggest you be an open-minded person.

    • 對我來說中文回答不容易,但是我試試看。你是對的,發音別的地方不一樣,而且沒有考試。目的是溝通,對不對?雖然我寫錯了,但是你懂我的意思。(我希望哦!)

  6. Yeah, so many of my students would say eLo, eSih, aycHih, eFoo, ekasih (X). If they would say eLo while spelling a word, I would write it L.O. on the board. It baffled their minds, the younger students didn’t understand that they weren’t saying L correctly because everyone here says eLo. It’s because in Chinese every syllable ends in a vowel. But of course, I can’t really pronounce 出去 correctly, we don’t have that high U sound in English, so it goes for every language.

    • I hear you… I struggle with proper Chinese pronunciation. I think all language learners encounter some difficulties with pronunciation, hence accents.

      There seems to be a fairly strong consensus that the extra syllable in ello is likely due to most Chinese words ending in vowel sounds, but what I find interesting is how it has become somewhat standardized in Taiwanese education. I’m not judging, just observing. 🙂

  7. the purpose of language is to communicate fluently, so you don’t have to tease the counter at her pronunciation. and i doubt if your Mandarin pronunciation is so PERFECT without any accent. Taiwanese people are just too friendly to welcome all kind of tones and accents, unlike you.

    • I agree. I found my confusion amusing and the fact I thought ello was a Chinese word made me laugh. Believe me, I make tons of funny mistakes in Chinese! I did not tease the barista or laugh at him. I actually really appreciated that he was speaking Chinese with me and I had a chance to practice with him. But mistakes and confusion in communication can be funny sometimes!

  8. One thing I want to point out, the purpose of learning a language is to communicate. If we already take the time to learn a language, why don’t we learn it as best as we can so people can actually understand us?

    The first three months when I went to NY to study, cashiers just couldn’t understand what I was trying to order due to my accent. “coffee” or “coke”? I knew it was because of my pronunciation, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what went wrong. And just to be clear, my accent was considered very light among other international students.

    For me, it would be great if there was someone to point out how to pronounce these words properly at the time. It would’ve made my life so much easier.

    • I agree with you, the most important thing is communication, even if a person’s language skills aren’t perfect. (Nobody is perfect!)

      And, even if you were to ask a native speaker to help you with your pronunciation, most people are not trained in teaching languages and don’t know how to help. I make a lot of pronunciation mistakes in Chinese, especially with tones, and when I ask my Taiwanese friends for feedback they really don’t know how to correct me. They don’t know what I’m doing wrong, they can just hear that it sounds weird. So finding a good teacher is one way to get helpful feedback. Another way I practice is by recording myself speaking. I can usually hear my weird tones when I play back the recording. I just keep trying until I get closer and closer to the right sound.

      How did you improve your pronunciation? 🙂

      • I had never watched so much TV in my life time. In the first six months when I went to NY to study, I watched all kinds of TV from C-SPAN to some silly daytime talk show when I had spare time. I listened to how they talk, the rhythm, the pronunciation, and the emotion.

        It also happened that I had an assistant at the time. She had a strong Brooklyn accent and spoke really fast. It forced me to listen to her with my full attention. We spent so much time together that I got accustomed to how she talked and I became influenced by it. In the beginning I say coffee as “ka-fi” as how I was taught in TW (similar to the Chinese pronunciation 咖啡), but she says “kwow-fi”(remember she has a strong Brooklyn accent). Therefore, I trimmed down the pronunciation as “ko-fi”. Things like this happened from time to time. I just had to pick up how people talked around me so they could actually understand me.

        One funny thing is I had an internship in Tennessee one year after I came to US. One day we were just chatting about where everybody on this crew is from. They were all Americans from different states. And I said I was from New York (before I mentioned I was originally from Taiwan), and one guy said, oh, yeah, you have that New York accent. It really cracked me up. @_@

        However, to this day I still have difficulty pronouncing “m” and “n” properly because I can’t hear the difference in a very quick setting ( I have no problems pronouncing/hearing them at slower speeds). Sure, I know words begin/end with “m” or “n”, but if somebody says it as if it’s one of the letters in an email address I still need to confirm if that’s a Mary M or a Nancy N.

  9. That’s not a problem unique to Taiwan. Here in Hong Kong people pronounce “L” as elle as well. It is because Asian languages don’t have that sound and their tongues are not trained for that.

  10. If you were talking in Chinese, you can hardly call her pronounciation of the letter L a “mistake”. Latin letters are not “English”, and they are pronounced differently in each language. I am German. If I were talking German with you, you would probably have a hard time understanding me pronouncing each of the single letters of the alphabet, too.

    Different thing when someone pronounces letters in a conversation held in English. Then it’s a question of being correct or not.

    • Good point, the latin alphabet is certainly not exclusive to English, and the letters are pronounced quite differently in different languages. So true! However, in my personal experience living in Taipei, I’ve never had a Taiwanese person speak German to me. Even when I’m speaking Chinese with someone (usually ordering food, tea, buying something, etc.) the person often responds in English. Never German, or any other language for that matter. So I assume that “ello” in this case was meant to represent an English L, only because that would be consistent with my experience here. (Disclaimer: I don’t speak German, but I’m familiar with the sound of the language.) Perhaps the barista in my story was combining Chinese with some other latin-alphabet based language, but it seems highly unlikely. I appreciate the discussion and thank you for pointing out the different pronunciations of the latin alphabet in other languages. Very nice insight!

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