There are a few sounds in American English that are consistently tricky for most of my clients, and one that also deserves a spot at the table is the L sound. I’ve found this sound to be especially tricky for my Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese clients.
The Light L
The American L has two pronunciations depending on where it is in the word. When the L is at the beginning of a word (like in love and look) or at the beginning of a syllable (like in elongate and release), it is called the light L. The IPA symbol for the light L is /l/.
Of the two pronunciations for L, the light L may be easier to pronounce because the tongue placement is a little less complicated. To make this sound, place the tip of your tongue behind your front teeth or at the bumpy ridge just behind your front teeth. Also, the tongue tip can come out past your front teeth. Here is the light L with my tongue tip behind my front teeth: Light. And here it is with my tongue tip past my front teeth: Light.
The tongue should be in a narrow shape to allow the airflow to travel around the sides of the tongue. The back of the tongue is low in the mouth. The light L may feel like it is being made towards the front of the mouth. Light, light.
The Dark L
When L is at the end of a word (like in ball and able) or at the end of a syllable (like in pillow and dollhouse), it is called the dark L. The IPA symbol for the dark L may be the same as the light L, or you may see this symbol, /ɫ/, depending on who has written the transcription.
The tongue placement for the dark L starts out similar to the light L: the tongue tip is up behind the top front teeth, but the tongue tip does not pass the front teeth like it can for the light L. But the difference is what is happening with the back of the tongue. The back of the tongue is low in the mouth, but it should lift up slightly towards the back of the mouth as you make this sound, and you should feel a bit of tension in your throat and tongue. You may even feel like the dark L is made in the throat, not in the mouth. Ull, Ull, Ull. The dark L might feel and sound a bit strange at first - and it is!
Here are some example words with the dark L: ball, hill, able, real.
What about the lips? The OH Substitution
Since the dark L does not exist in all languages, some of my clients will substitute the closest sound they have in their native language for the American dark L. That’s usually the vowel sound OH, like in “baw-oh” for “ball”. There are two articulation errors happening in this case: 1) The tongue tip has been lowered and the tongue base has been raised (which is the opposite of the tongue placement for the dark L), and 2) the lips have usually been rounded to make the OH sound. Here is the word ball with the OH substitution: baw-oh, baw-oh. And here it is with the Dark L: ball, ball.
Let’s quickly review the tongue placement for the dark L: The tongue tip is up and touching the back of the front teeth or at the bumpy ridge behind the front teeth. The back of the tongue is positioned low in the mouth, and then it pulls up slightly towards the back of the mouth as you say the dark L. Ull. Ull.
Now pay close attention to my lips - do my lips do anything for this sound? Ull. No - my lips are neutral. Ull. I can even smile as I say the dark L, and it will sound correct. Ull.
Practice Words with the Dark L vs. OH
Here are some words that are said with the correct dark L and the substituted OH sound. See if you can hear the difference:
Tips on how to Pronounce the Dark L
Use a mirror when you practice so you can make sure you aren’t rounding your lips when you say the dark L.
And here’s a trick to help with the dark L: add the vowel UH to the end of the word to train your tongue to come up to the right spot. Then slowly fade out the UH as you become more consistent with the correct tongue placement.
ball + uh, ball
tall + uh, tall
call + uh, call
Thanks so much for watching! And I'd love to hear from you - contact me to learn how we can work together to perfect your American English pronunciation!