The phoneme /l/ is pronounced in two different ways in English, depending on the sound that follows it. Many people -even native speakers- are surprised to learn that there is a sound called “clear l” (that used in late or elect) and another which is known as “dark l” (the one used in bull or film). A failure to make the difference between the two won’t cause any misunderstanding, but a good use of clear and dark l  will allow you to sound more natural and it will help you understand native speakers more easily (not least because the dark l  can get very, very dark sometimes).

Let’s start by listening to the difference between clear and dark l.

Clear                          Dark

sound_loud_speaker light                       sound_loud_speaker full

sound_loud_speaker allow                     sound_loud_speaker milk

sound_loud_speaker bullet                    sound_loud_speaker bull

sound_loud_speaker illusion                 sound_loud_speaker illness

l (alveolar, lateral, voiced)

Spelling: l (late, old, elegant), ll (full, allow)

The phoneme /l/ is pronounced in two different ways depending on the sound that follows it. When it is followed by a vowel it is called “clear l” and it sounds like a normal Spanish l. So the /l/ used in land and elegant is exactly the same as that in largo  and elegante.

sound_loud_speaker land                      sound_loud_speaker largo

sound_loud_speaker elegant               sound_loud_speaker elegante

But there is another type of l  in English, the dark l, which occurs when this phoneme is followed by a consonant or a pause. In this case, the l  is velarized, which means that the back part of your tongue raises towards the velar region (the back part of the roof of your mouth). So there are two processes going on: you are saying a clear l and, at the same time, your tongue raises as if you wanted to say an /ʊ/.

It might sound complicated, but, believe me, it is not. Let’s try.

First say a normal, clear, Spanish /l/ and, at some point, try to say an /ʊ/. You’ll see that the /l/ becomes different, dark, that is, velarized.

From clear l  to dark l  sound_loud_speaker

There is a specific symbol in phonetics for the dark l, which is this: [ɫ]. So the word help  is transcribed more accurately as [heɫp] than as  [help]. However, the symbol [ɫ] is not usually provided in dictionary transcriptions. This is because [ɫ] is not a phoneme but an allophone, so I won’t normally use it in this website, just on a few occasions for didactic purposes.

Now you can say the following words with a more natural accent:

sound_loud_speaker help [heɫp]       sound_loud_speaker fall  [fɔːɫ]    sound_loud_speaker elbow [ˈeɫbəʊ]     sound_loud_speaker old [əʊɫd]     sound_loud_speaker ultimate  [ˈʌɫtɪmət]    sound_loud_speaker alphabet [ˈæɫfəbet]


Now, listen to some native speakers saying the /l/. Notice how plainly the difference between clear and dark l  can be appreciated in the first example.

sound_loud_speaker First on the West End stage and later in film (Kirsty Lang, BBC4). ǀ ˈleɪtər ɪn ˈfɪɫm ǀ

And here you have the word feel repeated twice. Again, the velarization of the l  is quite distinct.

sound_loud_speaker Do you feel more in control? Do you feel that you are better actresses now? (John Wilson, BBC4)


More about the /l/.

Let’s now touch on some further points worth knowing about the l.

1. When the l is doubled (as in allow or fall) the sound doesn’t change. And, of course, a double l never sounds as the consonant used in Spanish to say words like llama or lluvia.

Listen to this example:

sound_loud_speaker below        sound_loud_speaker bellow 

The pronunciation is different and also the meaning of the word (1. at a lower position. 2. To shout angrily). However, the /l/ sound is always the same.

2. Affixes can change the type of l, as in this example:

sound_loud_speaker tell  (dark)      sound_loud_speaker telling  (clear)

3. In some accents -the London area, for example- the darkness of the l  is so pronounced that it turns into a sound resembling the /w/. So, help becomes [hewp] sound_loud_speaker and still  is pronounced [stɪw] sound_loud_speaker.

4. In American English the l  tends to be always dark, even before vowels. So, given the extension of this variety of English, you’re likely to hear it quite often.

Here is a very interesting example where you can hear an American speaker (journalist Rick Kleffel) saying the word language with a dark l  and a British speaker (writer Julian Barnes) using the same word pronounced with a clear l.

sound_loud_speaker “Could you tell us a little bit about how you put together the language of this novel?” (Rick Kleffel, KUSP)  “(…) I think the language varies from story to story”. (Julian Barnes, KUSP)


This is the type of work I do with my students in my one-to-one classes. I make them practise these processes with exercises until they improve their comprehension of native speakers and are capable of speaking like that themselves. If you are interested in my classes, you can contact me here.


Previous Next