The L Consonant [l]

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The L consonant sound.  This sound is especially difficult for people who don't have it in their native language.  This might be because there's actually two parts to it.  It can be either a light L or a dark L.  However, in the International Phonetic Alphabet, there is only one symbol that represents this sound, either a light L or a dark L.  The L is light if it comes before the vowel or diphthong in the syllable.  If it comes after the vowel or diphthong in a syllable, it is a dark L.  First, the light L.  To make this sound, the tip of the tongue reaches up, ll, ll, and touches the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth, ll, ll, as the vocal cords are making sound.  I've also noticed, as I've studied my own speech in slow motion, that sometimes I make this sound by bringing the tip of the tongue through the teeth, ll, ll, similar to the position for th, th, the TH sounds.  Either position is fine, ll, like, touching the roof of the  mouth,  Ll, like, coming through the teeth, like the TH.  Both make the same sound.   That is the light L. 

And now the dark L.  As I said, an L is a dark L if it comes after the vowel or diphthong in a syllable, like in the word real.  Dark L's have two parts,  The first is a vowel-like sound that is not written in IPA, but is certainly there.  And the second is simply the same position as the light L.  Lets go back to the example word, real, to talk about this.  In IPA it is written with three symbols:  the R, the ee vowel, and the L.  But as I say it slowly, notice that there are actually four sounds.  There is a sound between the ee and the ll.  Rrrreeeaaalllll.  It's this third sound, this vowel-like sound that comes before the L but is not represented by a symbol in IPA.  So the dark L is made up of two parts:  this vowel-like sound and then the L.  What is the vowel-like sound?  It's very similar to the 'uh' as in 'pull' sound. 

So, the tip of the tongue has pulled back a little bit, it's not touching anything.  The tongue is raised somewhat towards the middle, and the lips round a little bit before the tip of the tongue moves up to make the L sound.  So if you're saying a word like real or pool, where the tip of the tongue is forward for the vowel, real, it has to pull back, ri-, uh, ul, to make that dark L sound.  If you leave it out, real, real, it does not sound correct.  And let's look at the word pool.  The 'oo' as in 'boo' vowel has the tongue tip forward.  Pool.  So the tongue has to pull back a little bit, the tip doesn't touch anything, before the tip moves up to make the L sound.  Pool.  So the light L: one sound, ll.  The dark L, two sounds, ul.  First a vowel sound like the 'uh' as in 'pull', then the L sound.  In the light L, ll, it's just the tip of the tongue that's either raising or coming through the teeth.  So the sound will feel very far forward.  In the dark L, the middle part of the tongue is raising a bit in that vowel-like sound.  So since the middle part of the tongue is doing some work, ul, ul, the sound will feel more in the middle of the mouth, further back than the light L. This is a photo of four different mouth positions for the L sound. As you can see in the first two, the tongue actually comes through the teeth. Number 1 is the L on the word last, and number 2 on the word flew. In number 3 you can see that the tongue is not coming through the teeth. This is on the word flight. In this word, the tip of the tongue is touching the roof of the mouth, and the teeth are closed before it opens into the 'ai' as in 'buy' diphthong. And in number 4 you see the position of the L in the word fall. Here the L comes at the end of the syllable, so it is a dark L. So it has this vowel-like sound that comes before it and you see this mouth shape, where the lips come in a little bit at the corners, making the uh sound as part of the dark L. 

Here we see a photo of the mouth at rest on the left compared with the light L sound on the right. Here some of the parts of the mouth are drawn in. You can see that the soft palate is raised on this sound. As you know from these forward-facing photos, the tongue can sometimes come through the teeth, but not always. Here, this would show where the tongue does not come through the teeth, but rather, where it touches the roof of the mouth just where it meets the teeth. The tongue tip stretches up for this. But in some of those forward-facing photos, you saw the tongue come through the teeth. For that the tongue reaches forward and touches just below the bottom of the top tooth, showing some of the tongue. Here are both of those tongue positions.  Here we see a different comparison. Rather than comparing the mouth at rest, this photo compares both parts of the dark L sound. On the left, you see the vowel-like sound that comes before the L, and on the right you see the L. In the vowel-like sound, the tongue fattens up towards the middle and raises slightly as the lips round a bit. In the second half of the dark L sound the tongue moves forward. In fact, this vowel-like sound happens as the tongue is moving forward into the final position of the dark L.  Sample words for the light L: lap, fly, relief. Sample words for the dark L: fill, tool, cuddle. Sample sentence: Last fall we got a good deal on last minute flights when we flew to California. Now you'll see this sentence up close and in slow motion, both straight on and from an angle, so you can really study how the mouth moves when making this sound.

The first word, last, begins with an L. It comes through the teeth. Fall, the second word, has a dark L. The bottom lip comes up to make the F sound. The 'aw' as in 'law' and the dark L. Note the shape of the lips. And there the tongue goes up to the roof of the mouth to finish the L sound. We got, tongue comes up to make the T. A good deal, this has the dark L. You see the tongue come up there. On last minute flights. You see the tongue was up at the teeth and then came down for the 'ai' as in 'buy' diphthong. When we flew. Now here you can't really see the tongue because the next sound is the 'oo' as in 'boo' and the lips are too tight to see. California. I bring the tongue through the teeth to make this L. The bottom lip comes up for the F, -ornia. The tongue comes up to make the N and pulls down. 

And now from an angle. Last fall. Lip comes up to make the F. The 'aw' as in 'law' and the dark L, watch the tongue come up here to finish the dark L sound. We got, tongue taps up there to make the T, a good deal, another dark L, you can see the tongue come up here to make the end part of the L. On last minute flights, you can see the tongue come down quickly from having been behind the teeth. When we flew, again, there's an L in this word but you can't see it because the lips are so tight on the 'oo' as in 'boo'. To Cal-, tongue makes the L, California. Tongue comes up, this time it's making the N in California.  That's it, and thanks so much for using Rachel's English.

International Phonetic Alphabet symbol: [l]

See Wikipedia's page for more technical information, as well as a list of languages in which this sound occurs.

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