LITTLE is more than a little hard to pronounce. Get the tips and tricks you need to say this word like natives, in American English.
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In this American English pronunciation video, we’re going to go over the pronunciation of the word ‘little’.
Because of the Flap T and the Dark L, the pronunciation of the word ‘little’ is pretty tough. Thanks so much to those who suggested that I make a video on this topic.
Yesterday, Tom and I had a long discussion about this word. With each do something differently with our tongues when we pronounce it, and we both agree, it’s incredibly hard to describe. The thing that makes this word so hard is the Flap-schwa-Dark L ending. Other words that end with this sound combination: battle, bottle, hospital, title, capital, total, metal, subtle, ladle, middle, model, pedal, noodle, cuddle, paddle. A lot of words!
So, we both decided, this is a really hard topic to teach. You’re going to see some up close, slow motion footage of the mouth, and I’m going to do my best to describe what’s happening.
In ‘little’ and all of the words I listed, this is an unstressed, ending syllable. So the syllable li- is stressed, and –ttle is unstressed. That means it will be flatter and lower in pitch than the stressed syllable. Li–ttle, –ttle, li-, –ttle. Little, DA-da, little.
We start with the L consonant. This is a Light L because it starts the syllable. That means it’s different from the second L, which is at the end of the second syllable, a Dark L.
The Light L can be made two different ways. First, it can be made with the tip of the tongue at the roof of the mouth, ll, like this. Li-. Or, it can be made with the tongue tip coming through the teeth. Ll, like this, li-. In this case, it looks like the TH, but the tongue is not relaxed, letting the air vibrate it like it does for the TH. For this L, the tongue is a little stiff, ll, ll. You’ll see this L in the slow motion clip at the end of the video.
The vowel in this stressed syllable is the IH as in SIT vowel. A lot of people want to go towards EE, lee, lee-ttle, but we want IH, little – relax everything to get a more accurate vowel sound. Ih, li-. The tip of the tongue touches the back of the bottom front teeth, and the front part arches up towards the roof of the mouth, li, ih. Notice how the pitch of my voice goes down. Li-. This is the shape of a stressed syllable.
Now we get to the tough part, the unstressed, second syllable. We have the Flap T followed by the schwa/Dark L sound. Normally for the Flap T, the tongue bounces against the roof of the mouth and right back down. Uh-duh, uh-duh. If this sounds like the R, that’s because it is the same sound as the R in your native language.
But the tongue does something a LITTLE different in this word, little. Tom describes making the Flap T in ‘little’ like this: The tongue does a little release, then goes right back to the roof of the mouth for the Dark L. So the tongue doesn’t really do a full bounce for the flap, just a little release.
I pronounce this a little differently. I don’t release the tip of my tongue, I leave it right where it is at the roof of the mouth, li-ttle, uhl. Instead, I release the back part of the tongue, pulling it back like we do for the Dark L, while leaving the tip where it is.
Usually I make the dark sound of the Dark L with the tongue tip down, but in this sound sequence, I leave it up. I think you’ll find, when you get the hang of it, that it makes the word easier to pronounce. Let’s break it down and practice putting a break between the flap up and the Dark L. Litt-le, litt-le. The back part of the tongue releases down and back a little to make this dark sound, ul. Little, little.
Let’s watch this word up close and in slow motion.
Here, my tongue comes through my teeth for the beginning L. The tongue tip slides down behind the bottom front teeth, and the teeth part. The front part of the tongue arches up. This is the IH vowel.
Watch as the tongue tip goes to the roof of the mouth. Now, of course you can’t see it, but the back part of the pulls away and back to make the dark L sound, uul. And the tongue tip comes back down at the end of the word. Let’s watch again.
This word is very common in the phrase ‘a little bit’, where we have the schwa before, and the stressed syllable ‘bit’ after. The T at the end of ‘bit’ is going to be a Stop T, if the sentence ends there or if the next word begins with a consonant:
>> Are you tired?
>> A little bit
>> I’m a little bit frustrated.
Those were both stop Ts, bit, where we don’t, tt, make the final release, but just cut off the air for an abrupt stop. A little bit.
The ‘t’ at the end of ‘bit’ will be a Flap T if it’s not the end of the sentence and the next word begins with a vowel or diphthong. For example:
>> Tell me a little bit about that.
Bit-a-bout, bit about. Bit-a-, bit-a-, bit-a-. Here it’s a flap, which sounds like the D between vowels in American English, and might sound like the R in your own native language. Bit a-, bit-a, bit-a, bit about.
I hope this has given you an idea of how to practice this word. It’s a very common word, so practice it a lot and get comfortable with it. If there’s a word or phrase you’d like help pronouncing, please put it in the comments below.
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That’s it, and thanks so much for using Rachel’s English.