Articulation of L and N on the Gum Ridge

One of the things we work on a lot in my voice and speech classes is isolating the tongue from the jaw. Put simply, the goal is to train the tongue to do its work on its own, without the jaw helping out. Especially when your jaw is dropped, we want the tongue to be "reaching up" to articulate, rather than the jaw giving it a boost. The hope is that the action of the tongue can be quicker and more deft than the action of the tongue and jaw combined. Generally this is true, though there are some sounds that don't work quite as well at this as others. But generally getting the tongue to be more active while the jaw is more static is a good thing.

To begin, start by dropping your jaw with your lips apart, with your tongue resting behind your lower front teeth. Now, without moving your jaw, lift the front edge of your tongue to behind your upper front teeth, in preparation to make an /n/ sound. Make an /n/ with the jaw relaxed, and then drop the tongue back to its starting place on an "uh" sound. The action should feel "flap-like," with the front of your tongue (the so-called "blade") rising and dropping independently of your jaw. Now try doing three "nuh"s in a row: "nuh-nuh-nuh," being sure that your tongue doesn't linger on the /n/ sound, and that your jaw doesn't move at all.

Okay, so far so good. Now we move onto /l/. Similar to the action of /n/, the main difference is that the /l/ tongue action is more narrow, so that the sound can escape around the edges. The classic singing exercise where people go up and down the scale on "la-la-la-la-lah" is very much like this. Again, start with your jaw dropped, and bring your tongue tip up to the gum ridge, and then drop it down into the bottom of your mouth, /la/. Now string 3 of them together: "luh-luh-luh". Remember: no jaw action.

Now, try doing the two sounds in alteration: "nuh-luh-nuh-luh-nuh-luh". Keep your jaw relaxed, and your tongue is energized. Focus on the flap action, slapping your tongue down into the bottom of your mouth, and don't sustain the /n/ or /l/.

Finally, try adding in the the other two stop plosives that articulate in this same place: /t/ and /d/. [Note that the first, /t/, is rather tricky with your jaw completely dropped—expect the sound of the /t/ to be a little weaker than you might normally expect it to sound.] Try this sequence (each sound 5X): "tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh," "duh-duh-duh-duh-duh," "tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh," "duh-duh-duh-duh-duh…" Then try alternating them "tuh-duh-tuh-duh-tuh-duh-tuh-duh-tuh-duh." The last step to this sequence is to insert the /n/ and /l/ sounds into the mix with "tuh-duh-nuh-luh." I'll say it again: drop your jaw, and keep it from moving while you focus on the flap-like action of your tongue!


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Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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