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Hi I am an English learner, and I recently had this question about pronouncing n sound. I understand the standard way of pronouncing n sound is to put my tongue behind the top teeth, however, when I pronounce words like "language" and "difference" or when I speak fast, I couldn't move my tongue quickly enough to the back of my teeth. So I was wondering if it is always necessary to stick to the standard tongue position in these situations.

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I understand the standard way of pronouncing n sound is to put my tongue behind the top teeth ...

Although IPA [n] may refer to a dental sound (where the tongue forms a seal with the back of the top teeth), it may also refer to an alveolar sound. In this situation the tongue makes a seal with the alveolar ridge, the little shelf formed by the gum behind the top teeth. English /n/ is typically realised as an alveolar sound.

The Original Poster wonders how they can manage the acrobatic lingual feat of jumping from a syllable-final [n] to the tongue position needed for the following consonant.

The answer to this question is that syllable-final English /n/, like the n of many languages, has a very strong tendency to move its place of articulation in anticipation of the following consonant. Thus when preceding dental fricatives it may be realised as a dental nasal, and when preceding the labiodentals [v , f] may be realised as labiodental [ɱ].

When preceding labial consonants, the change in place of articulation means that the /n/ effectively assimilates to /m/. Similarly it has a strong tendency to assimilate to /ŋ/ before velars.

The Original Poster should therefore let their /n/s be freely influenced by the forthcoming consonant instead of trying to jump from one articulation to another. In a word such as difference, they will want to make their [n] alveolar and in a word such as tenth will want to make it dental.

The rather vague description of English [n] that the Original Poster has been given has led them to believe that this is typically realised as a dental sound in English. As already described, it is usually realised as an alveolar. However, nothing much hinges on this. Several of my native-speaker friends use dental realisations of English /n/ and /l/.

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  • There’s also a dialectal element – alveolar is most common overall, but some dialects (most famously the Italian-American dialect immortalised by The Sopranos, Godfather, etc.) have the dental pronunciation as the most common base variant. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 28 at 19:44
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The standard way of pronouncing the sound [n] is, in part and approximately, to put your tongue behind the top teeth. When you say the English word "language", you are producing the sound [ŋ] and not [n]. The letter "n" in English spelling is pronounced in many different ways. Letters are written symbols used to represent sounds of languages, and most languages that use the Latin alphabet don't use the letter "ŋ" to represent the sound [ŋ] – surely a point of confusion for non-linguistic language learners.

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  • Thank you so much for your response! I did look it up, the n in "language" is indeed pronounced as sound [ŋ]. But what about the word "difference" or complex sentence that has "n"s in it? Do you think it is necessary to always stick to the standard way of pronouning "n" sound especially when speaking fast? When I listened to my own recordings, I honestly didn't quite notice a difference. – tliu02 Jan 13 at 5:36

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