|Vol. 10, Issue 1, October 2009
Mixing Up /l/ and /n/ for Cantonese Speakers
Speakers of Cantonese have a tough time distinguishing between the /l/ and the /n/ sound in English when they appear in the initial or medial position of a word. Thus, very often a student will try to say “Good night” and it will sound like “Good light.” Or they say they are going to “Room lumber Two-thirty-line.” This substitution can really confuse a listener, so it is an important area of focus for this language group.
The first thing one needs to do is show the student that both of those sounds are formed in the same area (behind the teeth on the alveolar ridge) but there are some major differences. When they are saying the /n/, make sure that you point out that the focus of the sound is nasal, and that they should feel the vibration in their nose as the air escapes. Sometimes I have them hold their nose (or my nose) so they can feel the vibration of the sound, even making them push the sound into their nose (tell them to act like they have a bad cold!) This helps them to recognize what the /n/ sound feels like as opposed to just how it sounds.
In addition, to really help them in a visual way, I exaggerate the curling of the tongue on the alveolar ridge for the /l/ sound, so that the very tip of the tongue is visibly curled and touching the alveolar ridge. If the students look at their tongue in a mirror, they can easily see the tip of their tongue behind their top teeth. Then, when they switch to the /n/ sound, guide them by telling them not to curl and arch the tip of the tongue, but instead push the tongue flat up against the gum ridge and push the air out through their nose. This takes some practice, but once they can feel and see the difference, they can learn to hear the difference. Try to go back and forth from “lalala” to “nanana”, alternating between visible tongue curl for the oral /l/ and the less visible (but nasal-sounding) /n/. After this, I would test them with lists of minimal pair words like “lead” and “need” – having them see the difference in the way I mouthed the sounds as well as how they hear them. Finally, I would give them practice with sentences such as “Look at the slow snow” or “Turn on the night light” or “There’s not a lot to know” – clearly testing their ability to move from one sound to another. Having students monitor each other is a good way to reinforce these new habits.
Joyce Mandell has been teaching speech and pronunciation skills to the non-native speaker for over 15 years, working in a variety of educational and business settings. She is an adjunct at Baruch College in both Continuing and Professional Studies and the Communication Studies Department, where she teaches public speaking. She also works individually with business professionals.
Feel free to contact her with questions or suggestions at email@example.com.