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My understanding of approximants is that they are produced without the tongue coming into direct contact with any of the articulators in the mouth, which is true for /w/ /r/ and /j/. But /l/ is classed as an approximant even though - at least in my accent - the tongue pretty much directly touches the alveolar ridge. The manner sounds the same as a fricative to me.

What is it that makes /l/ a lateral approximant, rather than a fricative?

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    In [s], the tongue does not come into direct contact (touch) with any of the articulators in the mouth, but it's still a fricative and not an approximant. As stated in the answer, it's about turbulent airflow, which is a specific way for fluids like air to move. So it's more about the physics of the airflow than the configuration of the mouth, although in general, the closer you get to actual contact, the higher the chance of turbulent airflow... until there just is no airflow anymore. – LjL Aug 22 at 23:45
  • If you don't close the alveolar ridge, you get the alveolar approximant /ɹ/ instead of the lateral approximant /l/. – wjandrea Aug 23 at 19:30
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What unifies the various "approximants" is that there is a constriction which exceeds that of the vowel [i], but which does not impede airflow to the point that airflow becomes turbulent. The complete closure at the alveolar ridge is compensated for by lowering the tongue at the molars. However, you can increase the lateral constriction a bit more and yield the lateral fricatives [ɬ, ɮ].

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