Phonology of the Korean ㄹ

Phonology is the branch of linguistics that deals with the sounds of a language.

I’ve found sites that discuss English phonology, but what I need is to understand Korean sounds, and how to make the sound ㄹ specifically.

My tutor session today spent an entire hour working on the sound ㄹ.  I will try to capture what we covered, although I am still not making the ㄹ sound correctly.

I practiced these sounds:





My jaw ached terribly by the end of the session from trying to make unusual motions.  I think that is a good sign.

One thing we tried was changing the starting point of my tongue.  I was putting the tip of my tongue in the palatal position, but switched it to the alveolar ridge.  This is the place where my tongue starts when it is making a “d” sound in English.

alveolar palatal

I tried various mouth positions.  The more closed mouth like an “o” vowel seemed to be closer to the right sound to say 도로.  I had previously been using a very wide open mouth.  Tutor pointed out that if the vowel is the same, the mouth shape will be the same. Hmm.



To my ears, 도로 sounds like “toe-roe” with something funky going on with the r.  Not quite a rolling r like Spanish, but some sort of treble to it.  A vibration caused by the air, which I can’t yet reproduce.

Tutor corrected me from making the “o” sound in the back of my throat to making it more forward with my tongue on the bottom of my mouth.  It made a new sound which was closer to Korean.  I will need to practice making my 오 that way.  In the diagram, it was like making an “o” sound where I usually make an “a” sound.

We tried many ways to make the  ㄹ sound.  Today, I seemed to get more results using more air and less tongue muscle to get the sound.  The idea of putting my tongue in the place where I would start to say “d” and then letting the air make the sound was new to me.  We discussed making a cap with my tongue and then trying to not let the air escape, and how the air ends up flowing around the sides of the tongue.

The closest I came seemed to be with my mouth pretty closed like a kiss “O”, with starting with my tip at the ridge and using air instead of strong tongue muscles to say it so that I ended up with my tongue down at the back of my lower teeth.  Airy and gentle, not the forceful tongue flicking and rolling I’ve been trying previously.

I don’t know.  It remains a mystery!!!  I will try to practice, but I can’t tell when it is right.


From Wikipedia Korean phonology, the IPA symbols for ᄅ:

Phoneme ᄅ r
Initial allophone (n)
Medial allophone ɾ
Final allophone l

In native Korean words,  ᄅ does not appear in the initial position, though it does in Chinese loan words.   Final r is a liquid [l] or [ɭ].

I seemed to have to do something different with my tongue to make the ᄅ consonant depending on which vowel it was being pronounced with.  I do not know if this is because I haven’t figured out how to make the ᄅ sound yet, or if I do actually need to do different movements because the ᄅ is changed by the vowels.

Pronunciation ㄹ (rieul)

From wikibooks, Korean Essential Pronunciation Rules

Proper pronunciation of the Korean letter ㄹ takes some practice for most English speakers. It is pronounced sort of like a half r and half l sound. Specifically, it is either an alveolar tap or an alveolar lateral approximant, depending on the following sound.

The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents dental, alveolar, and postalveolar flaps is [ɾ].

바람 baram [paɾam] ‘wind’

The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents dental, alveolar, and postalveolar lateral approximants is [l].

물집 muljip [mult͡ɕ̤ip̚] ‘blister’

The final-initial pairs ㄴㄹ and ㄹㄹ each become [ll] :


  • 몰라 ([molla], low form for “don’t know”)
  • 곤란 ([kollan], “troubles, difficulty”)

While searching on Korean phonology, I came across Korean Phonemic Inventory and it’s summary of what Koreans have trouble with in English makes complete sense to me now. All the things violate the rules of Korean language, like taking a single and saying it is really two letter r and l.

As I struggle with ㄹ, I remind myself that I want to master this consonant.  This and making pure vowel sounds are probably the biggest part of my thick foreign accent that Koreans find difficult to understand.  After 30 minutes of working on ㄹ, I was frustrated.  I was ready to declare this something I will never get.  “If that is what you think, then it will be true,” my tutor told me.  Sigh.  OK.  Stop complaining!  “Whether you think you can, or you can’t. you are right” is a quote I am familiar with.  However I was surprised when tutor told me that if I keep pronouncing my ㄹthe way I am, that Korean speakers will think I am doing it on purpose.  Whoa!  No disrespect intended.  Nose back to the grindstone (or is it tongue to the grindstone in this case? haha)

Jonathan Gardner wrote about pronouncing ㄹ.  I liked his wiki so much, I plan to return often to read what the wrote, such as Grammar.  There is humor hidden in there.  For example, “In Korean, they use adjective phrases all the time. It’s a sort of pasttime for them.” Haha!

An article written by Stephen Wright, PhD Korean Linguistic Origins


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