How To Pronounce ‘th’ In English

Sep 26, 2018 | Blog, Blog UK

We’ll Show You How To Pronounce The English Consonant Sound ‘th’  

There are actually 2 ‘th’ sounds (see more on this below) and they are written as /θ/ & /ð/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). 

How to pronounce ‘th’ in English? The tongue tip touches gently behind the top front teeth. The air comes out in between the tongue tip and the top teeth. For unvoiced ‘th’, like in the words ‘think’ and ‘thank’ there is no voice. For voiced ‘th’ like in the words ‘that’ and ‘this’ there is vibration from the voicebox. 

Difficulties with pronouncing ‘th’ is a very common problem for non-native English speakers.

In fact, many ESL speakers mispronounce the sound ‘th’ in some words. In this article we will cover exactly how to make the ‘th’ correctly, unvoiced and voiced ‘th’, what sound you make when you mispronounce ‘th’ and if ‘th’ is important to correct and more. 

HOW TO PRONOUNCE ‘th’ – VOICED & UNVOICED. 


Here is a quick video that I put on Youtube showing how to pronounce ‘th’ in English. It’s quite old and I’ll be updating it soon but it shows 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.

Watch the tongue position carefully. It can help to have a mirror to check your position while you watch this video. 

Feel the air coming between the tongue tip and top teeth. 

There are two types of ‘th’ sound in English – unvoiced and voiced. 

The mouth position for the two sounds (unvoiced and voiced ‘th’) is exactly the same. The only difference is the voicing. 

‘Unvoiced’ means there is no vibration from the voice box and this is the sound in words like ‘think’ and ‘thought’.

It is the unvoiced ‘th’ sound that you practised in the video above. 

/θ/ Unvoiced ‘th’: 

In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) the unvoiced ‘th’ is written like this: 
/θ/. For example ‘think’ is /θɪŋk/. There is no vibration from the voice box for unvoiced ‘th’. 

/ð/ Voiced ‘th’: 

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!

Some students are very worried that they’ll make a voiced ‘th’ instead of unvoiced ‘th’ or vice versa. This is very unlikely. Don’t worry about voicing. If you are wanting to improve your ‘th’ you’ll need to focus your energy on getting the right mouth position – don’t worry about the voicing too. 

In the unlikely event that you do confuse unvoiced and voiced ‘th’ its OK! It won’t affect your 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.

HOW DO PEOPLE MISPRONOUNCE ‘th’

So, what sounds to non-native speakers tend to make instead of ‘th’.

There are a few different ways that people pronounce (or mispronounce) ‘th’. This depends on what their first language is. 

1. Problem – using /t/ for unvoiced ‘th’ /θ/  and /d/ for voiced ‘th’ /ð/

Examples – ting for thing, tank for thank, bat for bath
                      dat for that, dis for this, togeda for together

This is by far the most common way that non-native speakers pronounce ‘th’. Many, many speakers do this. For example, many speakers of European languages, speakers from India, and many speakers from Asia. 

Pronouncing /t/ and /d/ instead of ‘th’ has very little effect on your speech clarity. It really doesn’t make words you say unclear. 

It gives you an accent. ‘th’ is a very common sound in English, so it’s quite noticeable to native speakers when you use /t/ and /d/ instead of ‘th’ but they will understand it very easily and you will still be clear. 

For this reason, correcting ‘th’ should be a low priority for most English language learners. If your want to speak clearer English, don’t waste time working on ‘th’, you should be working on areas that actually affect how clear your English is to listeners. 

2. Problem – using /s/ for unvoiced ‘th’ /θ/  and /z/ for voiced ‘th’ /ð/

Examples – sing for thing, sank for thank, bas for bath
                      zat for that, zis for this, togeza for together

Using /s/ and /z/ for ‘th’ can make some words in your English unclear. Using /s/ and /z/ instead of ‘th’ is quite distracting. It really sounds quite different. 

Of course, there is also the problem that when you change unvoiced ‘th’ to /s/, many of the words have a different meaning and this is confusing for listeners. 

thank-sank, think-sink, thin-sin, thought-sort and others. 

Speakers of German, Russian and Mandarin usually make /s/ and /z/ instead of ‘th’.

If you make /s/ and /z/ for ‘th’, I recommend you consider correcting it but only after you have checked your other sounds, like vowels and consonants and also improved your word stress. 

Read on to find out more about why correcting ‘th’ is the bottom of your list!

3. Problem – using /f/ for unvoiced ‘th’ /θ/  and /v/ for voiced ‘th’ /ð/

Examples – fing for thing, fank for thank, baf for bath
                      vat for that, vis for this, togeva for together

Using /f/ and /v/ for ‘th’ doesn’t affect your clarity in English. /f/ and /v/ actually sound quite like /θ/  and /ð/, so people will understand you very easily if you do this. 

Speakers who use /f/ and /v/ for ‘th’ are often speakers of Cantonese, speakers of many African languages. 

For this reason, correcting ‘th’ should be a low priority for most English language learners. If your want to speak clearer English, don’t waste time working on ‘th’, you should be working on areas that actually affect how clear your English is to listeners. 

‘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’.

Watch this funny video of what can go wrong when you mispronounce ‘th’ as /s/ and /z/. This video shows a German speaker making errors with ‘th’. 

Actually, as I mentioned, for most people, who make /t/ or /d/, or /f/ or /v/ instead of ‘th’, correcting ‘th’ won’t be a high priority to correct because it doesn’t negatively affect how clear their English is to listeners. 

WHY IS ‘th’ SO DIFFICULT?

The sound ‘th’ in English is so challenging for so many non-native and ESL speakers because they don’t have this sound in their first language. 

In fact, most languages of Asia and Europe don’t have a sound like ‘th’ . 

In Spain, the Spanish /s/ is pronounced like ‘th’. So they can often make the correct position but many Spanish speakers make it for the letter /s/, not the letters ‘th’. So words like ‘Thursday’ can be challenging. 

For many people, the sound ‘th’ feels very unnatural. They aren’t used to bringing the tongue so far forward in the mouth. 

If you are making /t/ or /d/, or  /f/ or /v/ instead of ‘th’, this is another reason why I suggest you don’t bother correcting ‘th’.

Correcting ‘th’ takes a LOT of time and practise. It is a really big undertaking for many people and in my opinion is best left to advanced level learners only. 

HOW TO CORRECT YOUR ‘th’ IN YOUR EVERYDAY CONVERSATIONS 

So, if you have decided that yes, correcting ‘th’ is definitely something you want to do, then it’s important to take the right approach. 

For those people wondering how to pronounce th in English and correct it in your everyday speaking, you’ll need to go through some steps. 

These are the steps you will need to follow:

1. learn the correct mouth position for the ‘th’ sound
2. practice until you are comfortable with the mouth position for the sound ‘th’
3. start to practice unvoiced ‘th’ in single words, like thank, think, thought etc
4. practise unvoiced ‘th’ in short phrases like Thanks very much, I’ll think about it etc
5. practice unvoiced ‘th’ in longer sentences and free speech. 
6. repeat above for unvoiced ‘th’. 

It’s likely you will need to spend a few days at least on each step. You’ll need to listen carefully to the sounds you make and pay careful attention to your tongue position. 

Correcting ‘th’ is very challenging for many students. The process can be made much easier with the guidance of tailored pronunciation training.

A Speech Active course provides you with specialised training materials that guide you through the steps described while developing your ability to monitor your sounds.  

To perfect all key areas of pronunciation AND your ‘th’, join a full tailored Speech Active Course and start improving today. 

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO CORRECT ‘th’?


Should you bother correcting ‘th’?

I often tell my students not to worry about correcting their ‘th’ sounds in English.

It really depends on what your goal is. 

So, is your goal to speak English more clearly? 

OR 

Is your goal to reduce your accent and sound more like a native speaker? 

If you goal is to speak English more clearly because sometimes people don’t understand your English easily then it’s likely you should probably work on other areas of your pronunciation. Mispronouncing ‘th’ doesn’t really affect your clarity in English.

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.

Check your pronunciation of all the sounds in English here. You can listen to every vowel sound and consonant sound, record your speech and compare it to a native speaker. 

To learn more about the most important areas affecting the clarity of your English, join our free 5 day English Pronunciation Short Course. 

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. 

‘th is 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.  

I hope that’s helped you decide whether or not ‘th’ should be a priority for you and also helped you understand the English ‘th’ sound and how to pronounce ‘th’ correctly.

Have a great day.

Georgie 

and the Speech Active team, Lorelie, Laura, Antony and James

 

How To Pronounce ‘th’ In English

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Georgie Harding has assisted thousands of people from all over the world with improving their clarity and spoken English skills. A Speech Pathology degree (BAppSc(SpPathand CELTA qualifications and over 15 years of experience providing 1:1, group and online training make Georgie a leader in her field.  

Georgie is the creator the world's leading English Pronunciation online courses that are tailored to the language background of the student and presents regularly at Universities.

If you've ever met Georgie or completed her award winning courses you'll know how passionate she is about helping people move forward with better spoken English and more confidence. 

Email: [email protected]
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