For non-native English speakers these sounds might be very difficult to be learnt. There’re 2 standard sounds represented by the letters “th” in English.
And there is no way out: you can’t replace them with sounds you consider ”alike”. They’re unique sounds and once you learn them you – and others – will notice a watershed in your English pronunciation ability.
When travelling for instance, people may not understand if you pronounce “three” and “tree” the same; they might get what you’re saying from the context but still, this kind of mistake definitely affects the quality of the communication.
Let’s dive into it, shall we?
If you want to share this post with someone who is not using a computer, share the link yadayadablah.com/thsounds.
I’ll be using some IPA characters during this post, if you want to know more about them, read this post.
Explaining sounds with text is not an easy task, I’ll try it though.
BTW, the picture that illustrates this post was drawn specially for YYB and I’m proud of it. Anyway, the image hopefully help you positioning your tongue but if it doesn’t, there’s a likewise helpful video at the end of this post.
/θ/ (voiceless th sound)
Many people incorrectly pronounce it as /t/, /f/ or /s/ instead of /θ/.
The position your tongue should assume to reproduce this sound may be completely new depending on what languages you speak.
It’s quite simple though:
- bite (softly) the tip of your tongue
- Yes, you might sound as you have a lisp.
- You’ll only notice a low noise. That’s the voiceless th sound.
- The sound is that subtle because you’re closing almost every way through which the air can pass.
- breath (compare with breathe, which has a voiced th sound)
- thanks, thank you, thanksgiving
- think, thought
- three, thirteen, thirty
- through, thru
/ð/ (voiced th sound)
Many people incorrectly pronounce it as /d/ or /t/ instead of /ð/.
The tongue position for this sound is exactly the same of the other (voiceless) th sound. The difference is that you need to vibrate your vocal cords. If you don’t get it, let me instruct you step by step:
- with your mouth slightly open, say continuously ”e” (/i/)
- keep saying it but with your mouth closed; you’ll notice you can only create a vibration, not a vowel sound anymore
- assume the voiceless th sound /θ/ mouth position, don’t stop the vibration from the previous step, and don’t remove your tongue from your teeth
- keep vibrating and hopefully you’ll get how to make the sound
- breathe (compare with breath, which has a voiceless th sound)
- they, them
- this, these, that, those
- though, although
There are some exceptions. You’ll sometimes see the “th” but you won’t pronounce it. One of the reasons is because it’s too hard to do it depending on what comes after it, an “s” for instance. Some words though are merely exceptions, but they’re not many. In these cases, the “th” should be pronounced as /t/.
Examples (in all of them the “th” is pronounced as /t/):
- Thailand, Thai food
Only when you start practicing it you’ll really get it. You’ll probably do it wrong a lot of times before you nail it. Don’t give up, and practice twice or thrice a week.
To give you some help, I’m sharing the video that I used to learn with. After you watch it completely once, jump to 8:50 every time you just want to practice.