How to pronounce ‘th’ in English
Speech Pathologist & Founder
HOW TO PRONOUNCE ‘th’
There are 2 ‘th’ sounds (see more on this below) and they are written as /θ/ & /ð/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
Difficulties with pronouncing ‘th’ is a very common problem for non-native English speakers. In fact, most ESL speakers mispronounce the sound ‘th’ in some words.
‘th’ is often particularly difficult for people to pronounce at the ends of words for example ‘earth’, ‘Perth’ and when it is near the sounds /s/, /z/, /t/ or /d/. For example pronouncing it clearly in the word ‘something’ or ‘together’.
I HAVE SOME GOOD NEWS!
Problems with ‘th’ don’t really affect your clarity in English. Therefore, improving ‘th’ should be a low priority for most people as it usually only affects your accent, and not how clear you are.
For most non-native English speakers, other areas are MUCH more important to improve than ‘th’, such as English word stress, diphthong vowels, word endings and past tense endings.
To learn more about the most important areas affecting the clarity of your English, join our free 5 day English Pronunciation Short Course.
To perfect all key areas of pronunciation AND your ‘th’, join a full tailored Speech Active Course.
Here is a really quick video that I put on Youtube. It’s quite old and I’ll be updating it soon but it will show you the mouth position and correct pronunciation of ‘th’.
You can see the right tongue position for the sound ‘th’ correct and this will help you pronounce it correctly. Of course you will need a lot of practice to correct it in your everyday speaking. See the short video clip on the correct pronunciation of ‘th’ here.
There are two types of ‘th’ sound in English – unvoiced and voiced.
‘Unvoiced’ means there is no vibration from the voice box and this is the sound in words like ‘think’ and ‘thought’.
In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) the unvoiced ‘th’ is written like this:
/θ/. For example ‘think’ is /θɪŋk/
The voiced ‘th’ has vibration from the voice box and this is the sound in words like ‘that’ and ‘the’.
In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) the voiced ‘th’ is written like this:
/ð/. For example ‘that’ is /ðæt/
Don’t worry about the voicing. That will happen automatically!
In the unlikely event that you do confuse unvoiced and voiced ‘th’ its OK! It won’t affect your clarity. I usually find that people who are focusing on this should be focusing on other, more important areas that ARE affecting their clarity. It really doesn’t matter if you confuse voiced and unvoiced ‘th’. What you DO need to focus on is the position of your tongue for each ‘th’ sound.
As you saw in the video above, ‘th’ the tongue needs to be slightly between the top and bottom teeth. The air blows very gently between the top teeth and the tongue to make the ‘th’ sound.
Watch this funny video of what can go wrong when you mispronounce ‘th’.
Actually making the ‘th’ sound correctly isn’t important for speaking English clearly.
Other areas of English Pronunciation such as word stress, diphthong vowel sounds, long single vowel sounds and word endings are MUCH more important for clear English than ‘th’.
If you mispronounce ‘th’, it will give you an accent but it is unlikely it will make your speech unclear to listeners. This is because native English speakers are very used to hearing ‘th’ mispronounced.
If you find that sometimes people misunderstand your English then you should be focusing on improving other areas of your English pronunciation like – word stress, rhythm, English sentence stress, weak vowels (like schwa), English diphthong vowels and long single vowels. Also making sure you make the sounds at the ends of words clearly and correctly. These areas will improve how clear you are and how easily other people understand your English.
If you already have clear English but want to reduce your foreign accent (accent reduction) and sound more like a native English speaker then you should definitely work on correcting your ‘th’ sound. It’s such a common sound in English and correcting it will improve your English accent, making you sound much more like a native speaker.
Correcting ‘th’ is included in one of our full online English Pronunciation & Fluency Courses. Find your first language to see more about our tailored course for speakers of your first language.
Have a great day.
and the Speech Active team, Lorelie, Laura, Antony and James