[n], [l], [r]

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  • This lesson provides practice for some of the most persistent and difficult error contrasts for learners of English, involving the three sounds [n], [l], and [r]. Most teachers of English are aware of the difficulty that some learners have with [l] and [r]. Japanese, Korean, and Thai learners, along with many speakers of Chinese, especially from the south of China, all have trouble distinguishing and saying these sounds such that speakers of English can understand them. The lack of understanding causes a lot of difficulty as well.

  • There are many pairs of words in which the only difference is [l] and [r], so the opportunity for misunderstanding is great. Research on [l] and [r] with Japanese learners show that it is one of the most lingering difficulties, but also shows that improvement is possible with listening and production practice.

  • Less well known is the contrast [l] and [n]. A growing number of Chinese speakers have this difficulty, especially those from the south of China (such as in the Wuhan area). Like [l] and [r], [l] and [n] is a high functional load contrast. Unlike [l] and [r], there is little research on [l] and [n], and it seems, in our experience, to be far more difficult to teach and learn.

  • Some learners may have difficulty with all three sounds, though this is rare. Nonetheless, these sounds belong together in a lesson.
  • Warmup Part 1 Fill in the missing words and phrases. Jane and Melissa are talking on the phone. Melissa just arrived in town and forgot her directions to Jane's house.

    John: So where are you calling from?

    Melissa: Well, I'm (1) , but I've lost the directions to your house.

    John: (2) ?

    Melissa: On Nelson Street, next to a Wal-Mart, near a grocery store.(3) a light at the intersection.

    John: OK. You're (4) . Get back on Nelson and go straight, toward town. (5) at the first light. Follow that for about a mile till you get to a big intersection with (6) . I think that's Lawrence. Go right. Go down a few blocks and (7) at Rirchards Road. My house is third on the right, 1144.

    Melissa: OK. Let me check that again. (8) , then about a mile (9) and then take a left at Richards. (10) ?

    John: (11) . See you soon.

    Melissa: Thanks. I'll be (12) .

    1. here in town
    2. Where are you now?
    3. There's
    4. pretty close
    5. Take a left
    6. a traffic light
    7. turn left
    8. Go left at the first light
    9. to a light
    10. Is that right?
    11. Right.
    12. right there

    Part 2 Analyze the dialogue. Which verbs are used to give directions?

  • Note: Some other common verbs to give directions are drive, walk, travel, continue.

    Part 3 In the dialogue, the word right is used to mean three different things. Write the three meanings and give example sentences.

    The /n/ sound is made with the tongue touching behind the top tooth ridge. The air comes out through the nose. /n/ is called a nasal sound.

    Exercise 1 Listen and repeat the words and dialogue after the recording or your teacher.

    near into town
    next to funny phone
    night intersection turn
    nearby running rent
    not around soon

    B: I have no idea where I am.

    A: Where did you end up?

    B: I don’t know. I took the next left, like you said.

    A: Left? I meant to turn “right”. You must be ten miles away by now.

    B: Great! Now we’re going to be really late.

    Exercise 2 Ask each other questions with “would you like”. Answer with “yeah,” “no,” or “I don’t know.” Add some extra information explaining your answer.


    high dive into a pool

    "Would you like to high dive into a pool?"
    "I don't know. It sounds scary."

    run a marathon Climb a mountain
    ride an elephant scuba dive in the ocean
    act in a movie ride a bike a hundred miles
    Exercise 3 The words in, on, and are all pronounced similarly in normal speech. All are pronounced like [n]. Read the paragraph and pay attention to how you pronounce the words in, on, and.

    One of the most common trips in North America is the long road trip. You get in your car, get out on the road, and drive long distances to see as much as you can on your trip. The highways in the US and Canada are good for driving at high speeds. This is good, because it takes a long time to get places. In the American West, you can drive all day in the same state, and it can take a full week to drive from one side of the continent to the other. But you can only see some places by car, from Yellowstone in Wyoming, to Mesa Verde National Park on the border of four states in Colorado, to Yosemite in California.

    The /l/ sound is made with the tongue touching behind the top tooth ridge. The air comes out both sides of the tongue, through the mouth./l/ is not a nasal sound.

    Exercise 4 Say the words and phrases with [l].

    left follow full
    learn calling whole
    blocks willing old
    close by smelly tell
    light easily small
    take a left at the first light a traffic light
    a few blocks pretty close by a long way
    follow closely left-out tail-gating
    Exercise 5 Listen to the pairs of words. Are they the same or are they different? Click S if they are the same, D if they are different.

    Correct :)
    Incorrect :(

    1. 5.
    2. 6.
    3. 7.
    4. 8.

    Click HERE to download as a PDF.