French Corrective Phonetics Guide

The Consonant /l/

The Consonant "L"

French /l/ is described as a voiced, dental, lateral consonant. This means that air passes along both sides of the tongue during articulation, while the tongue tip is against the upper teeth (or just behind them). Examples of words containing /l/ are long [lõ] , aller [ale] and bal [bal] .

Clear and Dark (velar) "L"

In English, there are two very different kinds of "L". One is know as "clear" (or apical) "L", while the other is known as "dark" (or velar) "L". The difference between the two is illustrated in the following diagram:


Image result for dark L


In English, "dark L" is found at the end of syllables, while "clear L" is found elsewhere. Consider the words look and cool. For most English speakers, the "L" is different in each word. In the case of look [lʊk] , the "L" is articulated with the tongue tip touching behind the upper teeth, while the back of the tongue is lowered (it is "clear" or "apical"). In the case of cool [kuɫ] , however, the back of the tongue is bunched up near the velum (it is "dark" or "velar").

The important thing to keep in mind when speaking French is that "L" must be clear in all contexts, even at the end of a syllable. In other words, in French, the "L" of long and bal are identical even though the second is at the end of a word.

English Influence

Image result for English flag

Pay special attention to "L" articulated at the ends of words. Compare the following English/French pairs. Make sure the "L" is different (i.e.: use only the tongue tip in French):

meal versus mille

pool versus poule

pole versus Paule

Using "dark L" in French may result in "L" being interpreted as /g/ and could lead to confusion between, for example, fil and figue.

Spelling of /l/

The consonant /l/ is usually represented by a single instance of the letter "L", e.g.: long, bal, filer. It can also be represented by "LL" after vowels other than "i", e.g: aller [ale], mollet [mɔlɛ], collection [kɔlɛksjõ] (village [vilaʒ] and mille [mil] are exceptions in this regard since "ill" usually represents /j/).

When it occurs at the end of a word, it is usually pronounced in words that are of one syllable, e.g.: bal [bal], cil [sil], fil [fil] and silent in longer words, e.g.: sourcil [suʁsi], fusil [fyzi]. There are exceptions to the latter case, such as avril [avʁil].

For a discussion of "-ill" sequences, see here.

"L" in Everyday French

As you are no doubt aware, there is often a great deal of difference between how French is written and how it is spoken. One example of this is the pronunciation of "l" in the subject pronouns il and ils. It is usually deleted when speaking, such that the most common way of pronouncing il pleut, il faut, il travaille or ils sont is as follows:

il pleut [iplø]

il faut [ifo]

il travaille [itʁavaj]

ils sont [isõ]

This is by no means an indication of "sloppy" French. It is simply the most natural way of speaking in most situations. It is similar to the way we use contractions in English, like I'm (for I am) and isn't (for is not).

French Corrective Phonetics Guide » Consonants
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Nadaclair Language Technologies Inc.
Terry Nadasdi & Stéfan Sinclair