93: Do you accidentally make your /l/ into /w/?

Don't round those lips! Especially at the end of the word, the l sound can cause some surprising problems.


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 93rd episode.

Did you know that English words don't end in the w sound? This is initially hard to believe, because so many words end in the letter w, words such as the following:

cow, snow, saw, few, and chew.

Two of those words, cow and snow, do end in two-sound vowels that include a w sound in their pronunciation, so it is natural to think there is a w sound there. Technically however, it is just the full and complete pronunciation of the ow sound (ow sound) as in the word cow, and long o sound (long o) as in the word snow. The word saw ends in an aw sound; few ends in a long u sound; and chew ends in an oo sound.

You can study all of those sounds separately if you want to know more. However, the w sound is not what I actually want to talk about today. I want to talk about the l sound. Specifically, I want to talk about the l sound when it occurs at the end of a word. I want to talk about words such as the following:

bowl, still, little, circle, and couple.

A problem I often hear with words that end in an l sound is an accidental substitution with the w sound. I don't like to generalize languages too much because I think it makes people tune out when they don't hear their language mentioned as one that typically has this problem. However, I must say that more often than not, it is Asian students that have come to me and substituted a w sound for the l sound at the end of a word. Many of my students didn't know they did it. I'll call out Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Mandarin as the biggest offenders of not saying the l sound the end of a word.

For everyone else, this will still be a good l sound practice show, so stay with me.

I need to take a side trip on the l sound for a bit. I try to not bring it up because I find it sometimes only adds confusion, but enough people have mentioned it on the forums that I now feel the need to address it in a podcast. Native English speakers from the United States, as well as most other English speaking countries, actually have two different ways to pronounce the l sound. It is called a velar l and a non-velar l. Velar l's are more likely in the middle and at the end of words. To produce a velar l, we don't touch the tip of our tongue to our tooth ridge while creating the sound. Remember, the tooth ridge is the area right behind our top front teeth. The average native speaker of English does not realize that this happens, and to almost all non-native speakers, the sounds are indistinguishable.

Because of this, non-native speakers don't need to try saying the l sound in any way other than touching the tip of the tongue to the tooth ridge. The velar and non-velar l sounds are very, very similar, and it's much easier to pronounce a non-velar l. I mention all of this only because Pronuncian users have brought it up a number of times.

Let's practice the non-velar l, which, on the Pronuncian website, and in pretty much all other ESL/ELL pronunciation material, is just considered an l sound. To create a nice, clear l sound, the tip of the tongue presses against the middle of the tooth ridge. This forces the sound to be created alongside the tongue. The l sound is a continuous consonant and can be held for several seconds. Listen closely:

(l sound), (l sound)

Let's get back to this problem of substituting a w sound for the l sound at the ends of words. Since no words in English end in a true w sound, I'm going to practice the l sound/w sound issue by comparing words that end in an l sound to words ending with a long o sound. Remember, the long o is a two-sound vowel that does include a very brief w sound at the end of it.

During this practice, give the most attention to your lips. The words ending in the long o will bring the lips into a tense circle; words ending in an l sound leave the lips relaxed. Watch yourself in a mirror if it helps. Don't bring your lips into a circle for the l sound.

Repeat these sets of words after me:


Okay, now that you know to keep your lips relaxed, let's practice just the l sound at the end of words. Repeat after me:


If you want to practice more words that end in the l sound, Pronuncian.com has sound drills that are free to use as often as you want. I'll link to the l sound drills with this episode's transcripts. You can find all of our podcast transcripts at www.pronunican.com/podcast. Did you know you can buy just l sound practice MP3 files for only $2.00, or the entire set of all sounds for $20. With the MP3 files you can eaily practice your pronunciation when you are not connected to the Internet.

Don't forget, you can find out about all of our Pronuncian content updates by following us on Twitter. We are username Pronuncian, p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n, just like the website.

And finally, I want to remind you that you can post any pronunciation question to our forums! I learn a lot about the kind of content people want by forum questions. For instance, I never would have guessed that people were wondering about velar and non-velar l sounds if they hadn't asked on the forums. Plus, the forums are a free learning resource, so why not check them out?

That's all for today everyone. Thanks for listening.

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