Lesson Twenty Five: Dark L (Part One)

Lesson 25 of English Jade teaches you the pronunciation of the dark /l/ sound in English. This lesson is part one of three lessons on the pronunciation of /l/. In this lesson you will practice the dark /l/ sound in example words and phrases. Click the player at the bottom of the page to listen to this podcast lesson.


There are two pronunciations of /l/ in English. The first pronunciation of /l/ is the easy one which you will already recognise in words like ‘love’, ‘like’ and ‘lips’. This is the light /l/, which is always found before a vowel. Words that begin with an /l/ always begin with light /l/ pronunciation. We make the light /l/ sound by making a light touch with the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge (the hard part just behind the teeth). The back of the tongue is in a neutral position, neither high nor low.

The second pronunciation of /l/, the dark /l/, is the one you may not have heard about before. The dark /l/ pronunciation has a lower pitch and takes more effort with the tongue to pronounce. Listen to these two examples:

love and light = light /l/
small hotel = dark /l/

When I make a dark /l/ sound, the back of my tongue raises up towards the back of the palate. The position of the back of the tongue here is close to where it is when pronouncing the ‘long u’ /u:/ vowel. When I make the dark /l/ sound, my tongue tip stays in same forward alveolar ridge position as it does for light /l/. As my tongue pulls back, it cleanly and clearly ends the dark /l/ sound.

How I experience the difference in pronunciation is that the dark /l/ requires much more physical effort to pronounce than light /l/. When I pronounce the dark /l/ clearly, I cannot move on quickly to link up to the next sound. It’s as if there is a tiny pause before my tongue can move to the next sound.

Learning to pronounce light /l/ and dark /l/ is not that difficult because there are two simple rules:

1. All words beginning with /l/ have light /l/ pronunciation
2. All words ending in /l/ end with dark /l/ pronunciation

However, confusion arises when the /l/ sound is in the medial (middle) position of a word. We will look at examples of medial /l/ in lesson two on this subject.

In the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) light /l/ and dark /l/ are classed as the same sound/phoneme, even though to most of us listening, they sound different. The reason for this is to keep things simple. If we didn’t do this, we would have too many letters in the alphabet and too many symbols in the IPA to learn. The difference between light /l/ and dark /l/ is small because there is only a slight difference in articulation between them. Therefore, light /l/ and dark /l/ are ‘close enough’ to be classed as the same sound in the IPA. Close enough is good enough.

Standard dictionaries use the same IPA symbol for light /l/ and dark /l/. This is not helpful when we are confused about the proper pronunciation of the /l/ sound as we won’t find the answer in the dictionary. If the dictionary doesn’t distinguish between light /l/ and dark /l/ in a word’s transcription, clearly, how you pronounce /l/ is a small detail. I’m only teaching you this because I know many of my English Jade subscribers are perfectionists who want their pronunciation to be exactly right. If you find the pronunciation of light /l/ and dark /l/ too difficult, don’t worry; most people probably won’t even notice.

Here are a few example dark L words taken from the lesson:


novel

fulfil

whirlpool

casual

skill

squall

smuggle

alcoholic


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About Jade Joddle Jade Joddle is a speech and voice teacher who gives her non-native speaker clients back the confidence they had in their native language. She teaches high-level professionals to Speak Well in English so that they thrive and succeed.