In Cantonese, the ‘N’ and ‘L’ sounds have merged (become the same sound). Therefore, a lot of Cantonese speakers produce the ‘N’ sound instead of ‘L’, or produce ‘L’ instead of ‘N’. They have difficulty hearing the difference too.
In English, the sounds ‘N’ and ‘L’ are still completely different sounds.
With ‘N’, the air is released from the nose; with ‘L’, it is released from the mouth.
To test this, while producing a long ‘NNNNNNNN’ sound, cover your mouth, and (if you do it correctly) you will see that the sound continues. But, block your nose, and the sound will stop.
In contrast, while saying ‘LLLLLLLLLL’, blocking your nose does not stop the sound, but covering your mouth does.
To test your ability to hear and produce these sounds correctly, use minimal pairs for N and L (see instructions below):
- Find an English-speaking friend who knows the difference between ‘N’ and ‘L’ sounds
- Ask them to randomly say one word in a pair (get them to say the word twice clearly)
- Tell them which word you heard them say (“left” or “right”)
- Have them tell you if you were correct
- With the same friend, say one word from a word pair
- Have them to tell you which word they heard you say (“left” or “right”)
- Tell them if they were correct.
- If they heard incorrectly, you probably said it incorrectly. Ask them how to pronounce it.
To make the test more difficult, each word should be said once only.