202: How similar are /n/ and /l/?

Even small differences in vocal tract profiles can make a big difference.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 202nd podcast.

One of my students recently asked me how different the tongue positions are for the n sound and l sound. She said they look quite similar in the illustrations online and in the book, and she's right. They do look a lot alike, especially in side profile drawings. But a very small vocal tract difference between these sounds makes them sound hugely different to the ears of native English speakers.

One big difference between these sounds is that the n sound is a nasal sound and the l sound is not. Wait--what's a nasal sound? Well, it's pretty simple. A nasal sound is a sound that comes out our nose. As odd at that sounds, it's easy to demonstrate nasal sounds with the m sound. Put your lips together and say the m sound (m sound). Now hold your nose shut while you try to say the m sound… You can't do it because the air has no way of leaving your vocal tract when both your nose is blocked and your lips are closed. The n sound is the same concept, only it's not quite as easy to demonstrate. With the n sound, the tongue blocks the air from leaving the mouth instead of the lips. Make an n sound (n sound) and feel the tip of your tongue press against your tooth ridge--that's the bump right behind your top front teeth--while the front sides of your tongue also press into your front side teeth. Pressing your tongue into your teeth and tooth ridge like this blocks the air from leaving your mouth.

Then, if we think about the most basic form of the l sound, the tip of the tongue is in a similar place in the mouth as it is for the n sound, but the area right behind the tip of the tongue is not touching our side teeth. Instead, there's a gap for air to go through. This allows the air to leave out our mouth instead of our nose.

Listen to the difference:

n sound (n sound)
l sound (l sound)

If you're from the south of China, the sounds (n sound) and (l sound) might be interchangeable. However, to native English-speaking listeners, these are very different sounds. If you're from anywhere that uses the n sound and l sound interchangeably, words that include both of these sounds can be especially difficult. So for those of you who have trouble with the n sound or with the l sound or especially with words that have both sounds, this practice is for you.

I'll say a word, then leave time for you to repeat after me. Ready?


Let's repeat that last one again because it's so hard: nostalgia

If these words were difficult for you, we have resources to help. If you want to support Pronuncian.com and this podcast, you can buy yourself a copy of Pronunciation Pages 2 which includes lessons, exercises and sound drills for both of these sounds, (and all the other sounds of English, of course) or you can buy the Sound Drills which include just the practice lists for all of the sounds of English.

For free practice, go to Pronuncian.com and click the "Sounds" link. Then click the "Consonants" tab and you'll find free word drills, with audio, for all of the consonant sounds of English.

That's all for today, everyone. Thanks for listening. This Seattle Learning Academy digital publication.