In which we discover that /l/ and /r/ can also be approached from /n/, offering teachers a new way of working with these sounds and of helping the speakers of some Eastern languages to distinguish them

The story so far concerns the astonishing and felicitous discovery that nearly half of the consonants (11 of 24) are articulated from only 3 mouth positions … Now read on…

Journey 1: Getting from /n/ to /l/

Follow these instructions as you read. Go slowly:

  1. Take the silent position for /n/. Don’t say anything. Just notice the position of your tongue, with the blade of your tongue in contact with the tooth ridge just behind your upper front teeth, and the sides of your tongue in close contact with the insides of your teeth all the way back, on each side.
  2. OK. Now start to make a prolonged gentle /n/ sound and notice how, although your mouth is open, no air comes out of it because that tongue position seals any air from passing through.
  3. You can check this by blocking your lips with your hand, and the sound does not stop, and by pinching your nose, and the sound does stop.
  4. Now, leave the tip of your tongue where it is, and release the sides of your tongue downwards, so that air is able to flow past the sides of your tongue. What you are now saying should be the sound /l/. This is the variety of /l/ sometimes called dark L, as in well and told
  5. You may also find that the back of the tongue raises slightly towards the soft palate.
  6. And now if you block your lips with your hand the sound will stop and if you pinch your nose the sound does not stop.
  7. Also, if you hold the /l/ position without speaking, and suck air in, you will feel the cold sensation of air over the sides of your tongue, confirming the air pathway.

Journey 2: Getting from /n/ to /r/

  1. Do steps 1, 2, 3 as above
  2. Now leave the side of the tongue in contact with the back teeth, but release the tip of the tongue from the tooth ridge, allowing it to curve up a little, so it is still close to the tooth ridge but far enough to let the air flow out over the tip with no friction. If you speak aloud you should make the sound /r/
  3. You may also find that the back of the tongue lowers slightly towards the soft palate.
  4. And now if you block your lips with your hand the sound will stop and if you pinch your nose the sound does not stop.

Journey 3: Moving directly between /l/ and /r/

  1. So the final bit is to go back and forth between /l/ and /r/, noticing that the tip and side of the tongue alternate in touching the teeth and tooth ridge, and conversely they alternate in allowing the air to flow over the sides or over the tip of the tongue.
  2. You may be able to notice these movements more precisely if you doe these in whispering mode.
  3. Now you have a way to help a number of language groups (eg Japanese) to really distinguish the sounds in their mouths.
  4. At first keep starting from /n/, as that is an easy starting point.


/l/ and /r/ are known in phonetics as liquids. There are two liquids in most Englishes and most European languages corresponding to /l/ and /r/. Irish, American and other varieties of English have the same distinction though using the rhotic /r/ phoneme (teachers sometimes call this “American r” ). More about this in a later episode. And some languages, Japanese for example, have only one liquid phoneme that can be expressed as either /l/ or /r/. Thus in Japanese /l/ and /r/ are simply different allophones of the same sound.


What I have shown you here is a clear way of illustrating the muscle movements and positions that do the work of making and differentiating the sounds. Listening and repeating alone may not help your students to make new muscle movements.To do this requires that the learner can directly sense the muscle. This is an important basis of the SOUND FOUNDATIONS APPROACH

To be a good dancer you don’t really need to know the theory (though it may help), you need to connect with your body and its movements, you need to feel these movements from the inside. The same goes for pronunciation which is really just a beautiful, choreographed series of subtle muscular movements, most of them visible and all of them audible.

Most teachers and students would benefit from knowing the inner geography and muscular sensations of their tongue, mouth, lips, and jaw when learning new pronunciations. That is the aim of these stories and sound journeys.