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According to several well documented linguistic studies, a few languages like Mapudungun make a phonemic difference between interdental n, l, (let us spell it nd, ld), and a so called "alveolar n, l". Although I have no problem in producing those sounds, I am unable to hear the difference between them, so I wonder whether there are alternative explanations for that distinction, like (1) the sounds called 'alveolar' are rather retroflex, or (2) hearers see the difference by looking at the speakers face instead of hearing it. But if at least a few adults are able to hear the difference, I suppose that every child that is systematically exposed to such a distiction will surely hear it.

Is the human ear capable of perceiving or learning to perceive a phonetic difference between an interdental and an alveolar articulation of n and l? And, since there might be no studies of that matter, do you hear any difference between an interdental and an alveolar articulation of n and l?

(Those sounds appear in almost all contexts, word-initially, either before or after one of the vowels e,a,o, i,ɘ,u, and word-finally)

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    @michau I think Goswin has had a good shot at being explicit there. I think it's a reasonable question. – David Garner Sep 15 '16 at 21:59
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    I just looked at myself in the mirror pronouncing interdental l/n vs. alveolar l/n and I definitely can't see a difference, so I think (2) can be safely ruled out. On the other hand, I can hear a difference; it's pretty slight, but not so slight that your brain couldn't be trained to distinguish the sounds with practice. – TKR Sep 15 '16 at 22:03
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    Plenty of Australian languages have this contrast (as well as contrasting retroflex and lamino-palatal forms). Speakers have no trouble distinguishing them by hearing alone, and many non-native speakers (such as myself) have learned them. – Gaston Ümlaut Sep 15 '16 at 22:30
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    Are you listening to them in isolation or in some context, like before or after an [a] vowel? Distinguishing them in the latter case will be much easier than in the former case, as the transitions going into and coming out of them will cue their respective places of articulation. – musicallinguist Sep 16 '16 at 4:39
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    Native English speakers can correct me if I'm wrong, but when "you" is in a question and additionally emphasised ("Do you hear any difference [...]"), I see no way of interpreting it as a generic you. – michau Sep 19 '16 at 10:47
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I can hear the difference, and it's not based on seeing. The basic training method involves listening to minimal and near-minimal pairs, preferably using multiple speakers, multiple languages, and multiple words (the standard one speaker, one language, one pair is terrible for gaining the necessary experience). The UCLA phonetics archive will probably have a number of examples that you can listen to, to get the difference.

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As you said, several well-documented studies say it's a phonemic distinction in some languages. It answers your question: some people can tell them apart.

I don't see why you're looking for alternative explanations. I often hear from native English speakers that alveolo-palatal and retroflex consonants in my native Polish sound identical, while none of 40 mln Polish speakers have any problem in telling them apart (as long as they are not hard of hearing). On the other hand, I've been learning Mandarin for 10 years and I'm told that I pronounce tone distinctions reasonably well, but still have a problem with identifying the tone of an unknown word, even if it's pronounced clearly, but without emphasis. Again, for 1 bln Chinese speakers it is not a problem at all.

  • @ michau: Although several studies say it is a phonemic distinction in mapudungun, (1) some of those studies are over 100 years old, and (2) some other studies, working with different informants, were unable to detect such distinction. – Goswin Sep 16 '16 at 11:50
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    @Goswin If you put this information into your question, and asked sth like "is there a phonemic distinction between interdental/alveolar n/l in Mapudungun?", I would have no objections at all. Anyway, it looks like you got the answer you wanted, so whatever. – michau Sep 16 '16 at 11:55
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    Whether there is a phonemic distinction between interdental/alveolar n/l in Mapudungun seems to be somewhat controversial - or at least that is the impression I got. Many speakers may also be heavily influenced by the Spanish language, so great care has to be taken when choosing appropriate informants. – Goswin Sep 16 '16 at 12:09
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I have a near minimal pair for dental versus alveolar t in my midwestern American English. The difference is clearly audible to me -- perhaps if your speech is like mine in this respect, this might be helpful. The pair is "tent" versus "tenth", i.e. [tʰɛ̃nt] versus [tʰɛ̃n̪t̪].

What has happened here is that the rather difficult cluster /nθ/ has been simplified by assimilating continuant [θ] to the preceding non-continuant [n], then the [n] assimilates regressively in position to the following dental stop.

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