It’s All About That Alveolar Ridge
In General American English, 30% of consonants are produced at the alveolar ridge (8/26 consonants). The tongue tip directly touches or closely approximates the alveolar ridge. We differentiate tongue movement from jaw movement, independently elevating the tongue, and isolating specific areas. We stabilize the sides of the tongue along the top molars and lightly flick the tongue tip. Alveolar sounds require lateral (side) lift and tip pointing.
/t/: Tongue tip makes direct contact with alveolar ridge to build up intraoral pressure, explosively released for sound. Remember: spelling doesn’t reflect speech production. Sometimes we think we say /t/, but we actually use a glottal stop (complete blockage of airflow), like in “mitten”.
/d/: /d/ adds voicing (vibrating vocal folds) to /t/.
/s/: Tongue tip is close enough to the alveolar ridge to form a narrow slit for rapid airflow through a narrow passageway creating high frequency sound. Tongue hovers slightly below the alveolar ridge while air flows over it. Lateral stability allows the tip to lower just enough for air to escape.
/z/: /z/ adds voicing to /s/.
/n/: /n/ adds nasal release to /d/. Velum lowers and air is released through the oral cavity (mouth) and nasal cavity (nose).
/l/: /l/ with alveolar placement, as in “light”, “look”, “lake” has tongue tip at the alveolar ridge. For /l/ with velar placement (after a vowel), as in “all”, “feel”, “pull”, the tongue tip does not lift – the back of the tongue raises toward the velum.
/r/: Bunched /r/ has retraction and tongue is humped up toward the pharyngeal cavity (back of the mouth). Bunched /r/ may have side elevation at the molars forming a central groove. Retroflex /r/ has the tongue curved (arched) backwards with the tip coming close to the alveolar ridge.
tap: A tap is rapidly stopping airflow at the alveolar ridge when /t/ or /d/ is between two vowels and the second vowel is stressed, like “data”, “sweater”, “better”, “madder” and “matter”. A tap is a fast sound that seems like something in between /t/ and /d/.
Success with alveolar sounds depends on structural and functional elements:
• What is the relative height and shape of the hard palate?
• Does the lingual frenulum allow for complete lifting of the tongue to the alveolar ridge with the mouth open (is there tongue tie)?
• Are velarized /l/ sounds used in place of alveolar /l/ sounds?
• Is the tongue able to move independently from the jaw?
• Is the tongue tip able to tense and form a point?
• Are the sides of the tongue able to curve inward?
• Does the tongue rest along the alveolar ridge (mouth closed) or does it rest on the bottom of the mouth (open mouth resting posture)?
• Are all alveolar sounds made with the tip, or are there blade productions (tongue tip placed down on bottom teeth and mid-flat portion of tongue touching the alveolar ridge)? Which alveolar sound(s) is/are the client producing with the tongue blade versus the tip?
Difficulty with alveolar sounds may result in challenges with a third of speech sounds. Let’s spend some time appreciating the significance of the alveolar ridge!