How do i get better at pronouncing r's and l's
August 16, 2008 10:33 PM   Subscribe

My pronunciation of r's and l's is the same - for example, I pronounce lot and rot the same. English is my first (and only) language. When listening, i have no problems distinguishing between the two. No problems with writing either. Only with pronunciation. How do I become better at pronouncing those sounds?

This problem makes me much more self conscious in conversations - I often try to use word that don't have r's or l's - i.e.: I might use 'baby sheep', instead of lamb. That isn't especially effective because I usually can't think of a synonym on the fly like that.

My parents are not native speakers, so i wasn't exposed to those sounds at a early age. This must be the cause of the problem (but knowing that doesn't help me with a solution)
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm surprised this wasn't addressed while you were in elementary school - I had a few friends who pronounced their R's and W's the same, and they saw a speech therapist a few times a week for it. They no longer pronounce the two letters the same.

Do a search for speech therapists in your area.
posted by rhapsodie at 10:53 PM on August 16, 2008

You should probably see a speech therapist. They can determine what the exact problem is and help you with exercises and practice to specifically target and retrain your tongue muscle and/or vocal tract to make the intended sounds.

r's and l's are acoustically very similar. They both belong to a linguistic class called 'approximants'. An [l] is different from an [r] mainly due to the way the air flows over the tongue, with an [l] having air flow along the sides, and an [r] having it flow along the center (blade) of the tongue. With [l], some people are dominant on one side of the mouth, which you can find out by sucking in air while making the [l] sound (it's very tricky to do, so don't worry)—if you find that one side of your tongue is colder than the other, you are taking in more air on that side (meaning: your tongue is slanting, which is perfectly fine).

Is it that you are having difficulty making l's, or difficulty making r's? Or that you are not consistent with either? If you are able to do one sound, but not the other, this is a clue as to how the air is flowing over your tongue, and what you'll need to work on. Please try to find a speech therapist to help you with this. It's what they do and you so you shouldn't feel embarrassed about it. They love this stuff and will be able to figure out exactly what's going on and how to fix it. Good luck!
posted by iamkimiam at 11:07 PM on August 16, 2008

I had speech therapy as a youth for a lisp and I have to agree with the advice to have a professional help you. The process was essentially to talk me through the physical enunciation of the consonant and then practice, practice, practice. But the explanations and exercises were quite precise and technical. I can't imagine an everyday person being able to explain how the consonant L is pronounced precisely and usefully. Being able to practice to a trained ear in a context where I wasn't self-conscious was as important as the technical assistance, and getting correction and refinement with my early attempts (which started as a sort of whistley SH sound) I imagine moved things forward a lot faster (and helped me from getting frustrated as it was reinforced that I was moving towards the correct pronunciation).

I'm sure this is much easier for me to say than for you to believe but this isn't anything to be ashamed of. As an infant you have the full range of vocal sounds but you emulate what you are actually exposed to and you just lose many subtle distinction. This happens with all kinds of languages. I grew up with many adult second generation German immigrants who pronounced the sound TH as a hard T, for instance.

With sounds like L and R or S and TH you're talking about the tip of the tongue moving half a centimeter with the slightest change of shape but there's no way you could intuit or figure out how these sounds are formed without assistance. If you just can't access or afford speech therapy with a professional I guess you'll have to look for resources you can work with yourself (i.e. google speech therapy self help), but if you can swing it at all I really think some time with a pro would save you a lot of time and frustration.
posted by nanojath at 11:29 PM on August 16, 2008

I've not had difficulty with the the English language (it is my first and only language, as well). However, my girlfriend moved to the U.S. from Vietnam when she was 14 and didn't know a word of English; now she's fluent, but still has an accent and works on it all the time. She reads out loud a lot. It's annoying as hell, but she swears it helps her speak better. So just start picking up random books--anything--and just start reading it out loud.
posted by rybreadmed at 12:25 AM on August 17, 2008

Japanese are famous for having this problem ("We Play For Your Erection!")

As a english conversation teacher in Japan 1992-1995 I taught a weekly elective class that tried to address this issue for any students who wanted some practice.

I was not a trained speech therapist and the course content was sketchy so I don't have any real advice here, other than IIRC I saw some progress when over-emphasizing the RRRRR sound to drive home the point that it's a rough sound. Interestingly, the wikipedia article on 'R' sez that 'r' is referred to as the "Dog's Letter" in literature because of this rough barking sound.

FWIW, Japanese is generally a subset of Spanish phonemes (ie. easy-peasy), EXCEPT several pairs of sounds that came directly from China, and the RYU and RYO combos really punish me in words like 'ryokan' -- so I feel your pain.
posted by yort at 12:36 AM on August 17, 2008

Interestingly, the wikipedia article on 'R' sez that 'r' is referred to as the "Dog's Letter" in literature because of this rough barking sound.

The Wiki article and associated reference would suggest that the sound of "the Dog's Letter" is a trill (like the Spanish word for "dog", perro) and NOT the alveolar approximant "r" sound that is found in English. The majority of English dialects, including Standard English do NOT have a trill in their phonemic inventory.

The English 'r' and 'l' are more acoustically similar to each other than either is with the trill. The main difference between these two sounds (l and r) is the way the air flows over the tongue (achieved by modulating the tongue's shape in the mouth). I don't see how attempting to make a "rougher" sound would solve this articulation/airflow problem.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:54 AM on August 17, 2008

Over-emphasize the placement of your tongue to teach your tongue, teeth, and mouth how to form the words. For "l", push your tongue out of your mouth slightly so that the top of your tongue is meeting your upper teeth. Say "light.". Now, pull your tongue into your mouth (don't fold it up and point it towards your throat, just pull it well back from your teeth so that it is touching neither the top nor bottom of your mouth. Say "right." If it helps, say "errrrrright", as if you were growling. Repeat several times.

Practice *often*, and be sure to repeat each "l" word several times before moving on to the rhyming "r" word. Once you are comfortable, alternate between "light" and right".

Repeat these steps with "lice" and "rice", until you are comfortable. Then "late" and "rate". Then "load" and "road". Then "leads" and "reads". Then "lush" and "rush".

Keep doing this until you are comfortable with the over-emphasis of placement. Then, *slowly*, move your tongue back a little when you say your "l"s and and relax your tongue in your mouth a little when you say your "r".s Eventually, your tongue should be behind and just touching your top teeth when you make an "l", and just behind but *not* touching your top teeth when you make an "r".

Practice *often*. Eventually, you *will* differentiate without even thinking about it. Promise.
posted by tzikeh at 3:16 AM on August 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

BTW, my advice comes from teaching English as a Second Language, and I have seen success far more often than not. The only time it really doesn't work is when the student just doesn't care enough to put in the practice time.
posted by tzikeh at 3:19 AM on August 17, 2008

'R's and 'L's are difficult for a lot of English speakers. The difference is in how far the tongue is raised. My guess is that you have a slightly shorter tongue than average, and while you are probably not pronouncing your 'r's and 'l's identically, you are not articulating them clearly.

It's fine to practice moving your tongue up and down, but keep in mind this is not a failing on your part; it's probably just the shape of your tongue, or it's natural strength.

Perhaps a speech therapist could help. You might, however, need to accept that your 'r's are not as vigorous as they might be. There's a charming man where I work who has the same problem (incidentally his name is Lloyd R......) , but he speaks with a great deal of confidence. People have commented that they like his "accent". Vaclav Havel has the same problem, which is actually a lot worse because there are two distinct 'r' sounds in Czech. But he still sounds very dignified, and people don't laugh at him.

Next time you go to a restaurant, order the lamb with gusto.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:27 AM on August 17, 2008

oops...or its natural strength.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:29 AM on August 17, 2008

Get a recording device and practice. Figure out which sound you are not doing correctly. Are you saying L but R comes out? Or does W come out when you try to say R and L?

My advice for changing your pronunciation would be to say that when making the L sound, your tongue should touch the roof of your mouth just behind your upper teeth. For the R sound, your tongue does not touch the top of your mouth at all and is sort of pulled back, like the opposite of sticking your tongue out. So put your tongue there and then make your L/R sound. Also practice by making the R/L sound continuously and then alternately sticking your tongue out and pulling it in.

If you have the W problem, teach yourself that the R and L sounds don't use the lips to modulate the sound- it's just the shape of your mouth and the location of your tongue.
posted by gjc at 8:07 AM on August 17, 2008

Tom Brokaw, too, and I understand he's thinking of taking up public speaking.

Good luck.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:27 AM on August 17, 2008

« Older Fetish vs. Phobia: recipe for disaster?   |   Looking for a good Calc I/II workbook. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.