Learn how to pronounce the dark l sound and practise it in example phrases. Repeat-after-me pronunciation lesson for a British accent.
There are two pronunciations of /l/ in English: light l and dark l.
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, 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/
Dark l Articulation
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.
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.
Dark l Pronunciation Rules
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.
Now practise your pronunciation with the individual words and example phrases below. Place close attention to your articulation and repeat-after-me as clearly as possible:
cruel cruel joke
devil the devil makes work for idle hands
novel bestselling novel
model fashion model
moral the moral of the story is…
petal rose petal
hotel budget hotel
rival rivals in love
fulfil fulfil a promise
fossil dinosaur fossil
pencil lead pencil
playful playful kitten
harmful lead is harmful to humans
painful painful lump
school school of hard knocks
barstool sit on a barstool
whirlpool sucked into a whirlpool
signal signal lamp
burial burial site
casual casual acquaintance
unusual unusual funeral
channel channel aliens
control mind control
optional optional training
clinical clinical depression
Extend Your Learning
When dark l occurs before the /uː/ vowel in words like ‘cool’ and ‘school’ it changes the vowel significantly. Learn the modern British English pronunciation of these words by watching the dark l pronunciation lesson below:
▶︎ Now do this light l dark l quiz via the BBC.
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