When you teach Korean, Chinese, or Japanese students, you know you’re going to run into R/L pronunciation blunders. Before I knew about this common pronunciation error, I wondered why I kept hearing people talk about eating lice. I assumed it was a cultural dish because I hadn’t yet trained my brain to immediately switch r/l sounds whenever something sounded off. Your students don’t want to be misunderstood. They want to convey what they intend to say accurately. They certainly don’t want to cause the confusion one of my professors did when he talked about Muslims playing in the streets. (I was the only one in the room who immediately knew he meant praying in the streets.)
You’re not teaching a parrot.
Simply saying a word over and over and having your students try to repeat it over and over isn’t going to do anything but cause frustration. For one thing, they might not even hear a difference between what you say and what they say. If their language doesn’t have the same sound, it can be challenging to reproduce the sound they need for good English communication.
#1 Find out how their first language affects their R/L pronunciation
The Korean letter ㄹ is for a sound that is between the English R and L sounds. Depending on its placement in a word, it can sound more like an R or more like an L. ㄹ between two vowels sounds like the English R, so students might say “Herro, my name is…” When ㄹ comes at the beginning of a word, it’s more likely to sound like the English L. That can result in Korean speakers saying “ladio” instead of “radio”…which is no big deal as “ladio” is not an English word, and listeners are more likely to figure it out. But, what if your Korean student said “ramp” when she meant “lamp”? A google search can help you put together a list of words that are most likely to cause issues.
#2 Watch their mouth as they make (or try to make) the sound.
Tongue and mouth position is crucial for creating sounds the proper way. When a student is trying to make a sound not found in his own language, he may not instinctively know how to position his tongue and lips to create it. This is certainly more helpful with consonant sounds than vowel sounds, but seeing what they might be doing wrong will help you explain what they should do instead. I like to have them watch my mouth as I make the sound and then look at small hand-held mirrors (or even their phone in selfie mode)to watch their own mouth as they try. With R/L pronunciation, they won’t see much, but they will see your tongue for L.
#3 Use minimal and similar pairs when making the distinction between two sounds is the issue.
Minimal and similar pairs aren’t just for drilling students on sound production. They are also helpful in showing WHY making the distinction between sounds is important. A “liver” certainly isn’t a “river,” and “light” has nothing to do with “write.” By practicing with pairs, students are constantly moving their tongue from the R position to the L. This actually helps exercise the tongue and makes holding the tongue in those positions more natural-feeling. If your language dictates that words don’t begin with the “R” sound, saying anything that begins with an R will feel unnatural, and that can make it harder to remember to do it.
#4 Teach pronunciation-related vocabulary.
How ridiculous do you end up feeling (and perhaps looking) when you try to explain tongue positions when the tongue is entirely inside the mouth and not seen when making a sound? Telling students how to hold their tongue without using relevant vocabulary complicates everything. It’s like trying to teach the difference between active and passive voice without saying subject, object, verb, participle, verb 3, phrase, etc. If your students know front, back, hard palate, soft palate, tip, base, and curl, for example, they will have an easier time understanding your instructions for where to put their tongue. Unless you are doing an actual pronunciation class, you (and they) may not need to know the difference between the velar and the uluvar. Still, you could always introduce more specific terminology as it becomes necessary.
One More Quick Tip for R/L Pronunciation
Teaching your students how (and when) to make the R sound vs. the L sound isn’t about eliminating an accent. It’s about reducing a pronunciation challenge enough that your students can communicate on the level that they need/want to. As for that quick tip, I’ve found that telling students to put the tip of their tongue to the top of their mouth as far back as they can results in a better R sound and that putting the tip of their tongue between their front teeth will guarantee an L sound. What R/L pronunciation tip can you share?
Grab these R/L Pronunciation minimal pair cards!
Click the image below to grab full-color cards for EIGHT R/L minimal/similar pairs you can use with your students.