Introduction to Approximants
The four English approximant sounds—/l/, /r/, /w/ and /y/) are created by constricting the vocal tract slightly, but not so much that the air becomes turbulent as it passes through.
l sound /l/: the tip of the tongue is pressed against the middle of the tooth ridge and air is allowed to pass freely along the sides of the tongue
r sound /r/: the back of the tongue is bunched high so the sides of the tongue touch the back side teeth
w sound /w/: lips are made into a small circle, the back of the tongue is lifted
y sound /y/: the tongue blade is pressed very close to the back of the tooth ridge
Listen to the following sounds:
l sound /l/
r sound /r/
w sound /w/
y sound /y/
Closely related to /r/ are the four r-controlled vowels:
ar sound /ɑr/
or sound /ɔr/
air sound /ɛr/
The /ɚ/ essentially a syllabic r (an /r/ that creates a syllable); the other three r-controlled vowels are a combination of a vowel sound and /r/.
Note: There are other options besides the primary ones described above for creating /r/ and /l/. Refer to the specific lessons for these sounds to view the options.
Semi-vowels: /w/ and /y/
The /w/ and /y/ are called semi-vowels because, although the vocal tract is relatively unrestricted during the formation of both of these sounds, they are not syllabic (meaning they do not force a syllable to occur). Another vowel-like quality of these two sounds is that two-sound vowels (also called diphthongs) include a sound that is nearly identical to a /w/ or /y/ in their pronunciation. American English two-sound vowels include the following: /eɪ/, /ɑɪ/, /oʊ/, /yu/, /ɔɪ/, and /aʊ/--long a, long i, long o, long u, oi sound, and ow sound.)
Syllabic consonants: /l/ and /ɚ/
A syllabic consonant is a consonant sound that becomes the base sound of a syllable. While /ɚ/ is always syllabic and can occur on either a stressed or unstressed syllable, it is only possible to have a syllabic /l/ on an unstressed syllable.
Voiced and unvoiced sounds
Although approximants are voiced, when they occur after unvoiced stops--/k/, /t/, and /p/--as in the words 'crash,' 'play,' and 'twin'--the approximant begins as an unvoiced sound and the vocal cords begin to vibrate during the production of the sound. Non-native speakers who have difficulty with these types of consonant clusters often accidentally add an additional voiced sound between the stop and approximant. Learning to delay voicing avoids the possibility of an accidental vowel sound (and the accompanying unwanted syllable).