Our video on the English TH sound is here at last! In this lesson you’ll:
- learn how to pronounce the tricky TH sounds (Yes, there are two of them!)
- see how we move our mouth and tongue
- watch examples of common mistakes, so you can avoid them
- learn which mistakes matter and which don’t
The English TH sound
We’ve had lots of requests for a video on the TH sound.
And now it’s here!
We’re going to show you how to pronounce this difficult sound.
And we’ll also show you what can go wrong, so you can fix mistakes you might be making.
Very few languages have a TH sound but it’s a common sound in English.
If you don’t have it in your language, you’ll need to learn new mouth and tongue movements.
And just to make things harder, we have two TH sounds.
There’s an unvoiced sound.
And a voiced sound.
The way you move your mouth with both these sounds is the same.
The difference is whether you add you voice. You can feel the difference here. th. th.
We use unvoiced sounds in words like these: thin, thanks, mouth, birthday.
And we use voiced sounds in words like these: this, that, mother, weather.
But we’re jumping ahead. The first thing you need to know is how we move our mouths.
How to move your mouth and tongue
OK, so here’s the mouth and inside is the tongue. But it’s not a good tongue for making a TH sound. Because it’s pointy. This is a good tongue for a T sound and a D sound. t t t, d d d. But with the TH sound, you need something that’s thicker. Let’s have a go. OK, this tongue is better because it’s wider and not so pointy. And you want to put it on top of your bottom teeth. Put your top teeth on top so you can just see it peeking out.
Keep the back of your tongue low in your mouth and blow air around the sides of the tongue. th. th. It’s a gentle sound and just the tip of the tongue is enough.
So you don’t want a pointy tongue for a TH sound.
Yeah, and that’s something students often find hard. Your tongue needs to be relaxed.
There’s no tension.
So what’s tricky about this for English learners?
We’re going to show you some examples.
TH sound – Fixing mistakes
We asked some non-native speakers to say some different TH words.
Watch us and then watch them and see if you can spot any problems.
Instead of th, they’re saying /t/.
This is very common. So what’s causing it?
Well, remember you need to keep your tongue down and relaxed. If it’s pointy and it goes too high you’re going to make a T sound.
Let’s see some learners who got it right.
They were good.
Let’s have another example.
OK, this is the word ‘thaw’. If ice thaws, then it turns into water when it gets warmer.
Pay attention to the third example.
The last guy was interesting because instead of thaw, he said ‘chow’.
Ch. It’s a mixture of /t/ and sh. Ch.
It means his tongue was too high up but also too far back. If you’re saying ch, you need to get your tongue down between your teeth for th.
So how far forward does your tongue have to be?
That’s an interesting question because it varies.
Thhhhh. It sounds silly if your tongue is too far forward.
I watch our mouths a lot when I’m editing our videos, and sometimes I see our tongues come out clearly between our teeth – teeth. And sometimes they hardly come out at all. Teeth.
Is there a general rule that can help?
It depends on word stress and speed, but some of my students find this helpful. If you put your finger in front of your lips, you just want your tongue to touch it lightly. That’s a sort of average distance.
Now th is an unvoiced sound, but what about the voiced sound. th. What problems do students have with that?
See if you can spot one.
They were saying /d/ instead of th.
Did you hear it?
This is similar to the problem we saw before with T sounds. Their tongues are too pointy and high up.
When you lift your tongue up, you block the air flow and make a T or D consonant instead.
D and T consonants are similar. Your mouth and tongue are in the same position. T is unvoiced and you just add your voice to make a D. /t/ /t/ /t/ – /d/ /d/ /d/.
So if you’re saying a /t/ or /d/, bring your tongue down between your teeth for th.
A good way to practice is to hold out the sounds. It makes sure you’re keeping your tongue relaxed.
OK, let’s have the next example.
This one’s fun. You’ll hear some learners saying the word south. Do they all sound OK to you?
What did you think?
I thought they were great except the last one.
And I think they were all great.
But what about the last one? She said ‘souf’.
A lot of people in and around London often say /f/ instead of th. So to me she sounds great. But to you?
I haven’t heard that in the US.
What she was doing there was putting her top teeth on her bottom lip and blowing air. /f/ /f/ /f/.
If you say it that way in London, we’ll understand you.
OK, let’s have a different example.
This time some learners are going to say the number three. Which one’s different?
The last guy said it differently.
He said tree not three.
That reminds me of growing up in New York because people often said that there too. Instead of thirty-three they said Tirty-Tree.
It’s a plosive sound. tree.
I think it’s an Irish thing.
It’s the same in Ireland. It’s a regional variation again.
And that raises a question. How good do you want your TH sounds to be?
Setting your pronunciation goals
Perhaps your goal is to learn to speak English like a native speaker, and then you’ll want them to be perfect.
But most people just want communicate and a perfect accent isn’t important.
Then the goal is be intelligible: to make your TH sounds clear enough for other people to understand.
And we have good news about that because that might not be as hard as you think.
There’s been a lot of research into this and it might surprise you. Consonant sounds are normally important for intelligibility, so getting sounds like /p/ and /b/ right and /l/ and /r/. They matter.
But TH sounds are an exception. A lot of variations seem to work.
So instead of th you might say /d/ or /t/ or/f/ or /v/. It might not matter. People will probably understand you.
Exactly. Of course you can’t say just anything.
Yeah. For example, you probably don’t want to say ch or dj. They might be harder to understand.
And something else about that research. If you want to be intelligible, they found rhythm and stress were very important.
We’ve made another video about that. I’ll put the link here.
Make sure you check it out. And if you’ve enjoyed this video, perhaps we could make another one to practice the TH sounds.
So you can develop the muscle memory you need to make the perfect th. Let us know if you’d like that.
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