These two sounds are tough and many non-native speakers mix them up. The good news is: they are very different, so if you focus on the mouth position, you should be able to get them straight. See words with these two sounds compared so you can solidify your understanding of the different positions.
YouTube blocked? Click here to see the video.
Today we are going to go over the difference between the R [ɹ] and the L consonant sounds. Many of my students have problems hearing and feeling the difference between these two sounds. Therefore, they have problems saying the two sounds correctly. First, let’s review the mouth position. To make the L, the tongue comes forward, and the tip of the tongue presses against the roof of the mouth just behind the teeth, or sometimes comes through the teeth. To make the R sound, the tip of the tongue is down while the back/mid part of the tongue raises. The back/mid part of the tongue presses against the insides of the top teeth. So, to make the L sound, the tongue tip is up and forward, and to make the R sound it is down and further back. In the R sound, the tip of the tongue is not touching anything. Also, in the L sound, the lips remain more neutral. In the R sound, they round somewhat. And sometimes, at the beginning of a word especially, they round a lot.
Let’s look at a word pair where the only difference between the two words is the R and the L consonant. Rate, late. Here you see both of the sounds side-by-side. Notice in the R sound for ‘rate’, that the lips are more rounded. In the L sound, the tip of the tongue is up against the roof of the mouth, behind the front teeth. Now you will see me speak one of the words, either ‘rate’ or ‘late’, with no sound. I want you to study the mouth position and guess which one it is. The word that I said is ‘rate’, which begins with the R. Note the starting mouth position. Rate. The lips were in a tight circle for the R sound. Now let’s look at a word pair where it is the sound that comes at the end of the words that makes the difference. Cuddle, which ends in the L sound, and cutter, which ends in the R sound.
Here the sounds are a little more relaxed as they come at the end of the word. However, the tongue is still up in position, tongue tip touching behind the front top teeth for the L sound, and the lips are still somewhat rounded for the R sound. You can see this dark space in the mouth for the R sound. That is because the tongue is further back in this sound. Here again I will say one of the words without the sound. Guess what the word is based on the mouth position. Cuddle. The word was ‘cuddle’ with the L sound. And now a word pair where the R and L sound comes in the middle of the word. Feeling and fearing. Here again are both sounds. The lips are more rounded for the R sound. And the tongue tip for the L is, as expected, raised to the roof of the mouth.
In the R sound you can see more dark space in the mouth because the tongue is pulled further back. In the L sound the tongue is more forward, and therefore you can see it more easily through the teeth. Again, I will repeat one of the words without sound. Guess which word it is, based on the mouth position you see. The word was ‘feeling’, with the L sound.
I hope this helps you to understand how these sounds are different. When you practice, use a mirror. And make sure that you see in the mirror the correct mouth position for these sounds.