68: Voiced and Unvoiced 'th' /ð,θ/ review

Yes, dear listeners, keep your tongue in your mouth! Don't put it between your teeth.


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 68th episode.

Today I'm going to return to a topic I haven't talked about in quite a long time, the th sounds. Everyone could use more practice with these sounds, it seems. Way back in episode 1, I gave you the practice sentence "Think about this thing, that thing, and those things," so you can practice alternating between the voiced and unvoiced th sounds.

If you're new to this podcast, let me review voiced and unvoiced sounds. Voicing happens way down in our throats when our vocal folds vibrate. You can feel this if you put your fingers on the front of your throat and alternate between saying a d sound, which is voiced, and a t sound, which is unvoiced (d sound, t sound, d sound, t sound). You can also hear the difference better if you put your fingers in your ears while saying those sounds. If you're not on a bus or train or other public space, try it. Put you fingers in your ears, and say the d sound and t sound (d sound, t sound, d sound, t sound). I teach the difference between voiced and unvoiced sounds using d and t as examples because most languages use those sounds at least a little bit.

You can practice hearing the difference between an unvoiced and voiced th sound the same way. I'll say both sounds: unvoiced th sound, then voiced th sound (unvoiced th, voiced th, unvoiced th, voiced th).

Some forum posts have had comments that it can be really difficult to transition from a th sound to another sound. Most people that can create a th sound by itself, but not near other sounds, are simply putting too much effort into creating the sound by moving the tongue too far forward.

Let me explain. I really see a lot of teaching material and YouTube-type videos that show creating these sounds with your tongue between your teeth. You will create a beautiful and perfect th sound with your tongue between your teeth, for certain. And teachers love it because we can see you create the sound. However, it can be next to impossible for some people to move from creating the sound that way into the next sound. It is too far for the tongue to travel.

I find that English learners have a much easier time transitioning from the th sounds when you create those sounds by placing your tongue behind your front teeth, very lightly touching the front teeth. Often if the tongue is higher, and only touching the top teeth, it is the easies to transition to and from. It should sound exactly the same whether the tongue is between the teeth, or behind them.

Try it both ways; first create the sound with your tongue between your teeth, then behind.


(unvoiced th, voiced th, unvoiced th, voiced th)


Now let's practice the word third so you can get from the unvoiced th to a schwa+r,


third, third


And now let's practice the word these so you can practice transitioning from the voiced th to a long e, then z sound.


these, these


How did that go?

Remember, the th sounds are fricatives, they are smooth sounds that should not completely stop the air, like a d sound or t sound would. The biggest problem I hear is that non-native speakers stop the air at the beginning of the sound, then release it as a fricative.

Here is a 2-question pop quiz for you. Are you ready?


  1. What kinds of sounds begin by stopping the air, and are then released as fricatives?
  2. How many of those sounds do we have in English?


The answers:


  1. Affricates begin by stopping the air and end with a fricative sound.
  2. We have 2 affricates in English, the ch sound and j sound.


That was kind of fun. Maybe I'll start having more pop quizzes.

Just to add to the fun, create a ch sound and j sound (ch sound, j sound) and notice how the air stops, then lets go with some extra noise (ch sound, j sound). You do not want a similar type sound for the th sounds. It will sound like this if you do that (t-th, d-th) instead of like this (unvoiced th, voiced th).

Let me compare them as an affricate then fricative again, first unvoiced, then voiced.


t-th, unvoiced th
d-th, voiced th


Now you try saying the th sounds again and see if you might be creating a little stop at the beginning or not.


unvoiced th, voiced th


So, those are the three major things to remember about the th sounds:


  1. There is a voiced and an unvoiced th sound
  2. The sound is often easier to transition to and from if it is being created behind the front teeth instead of between them
  3. Be careful of accidentally creating an affricate-type th sound instead of a fricative th


Let's practice the th sound practice sentence a few times. I'll leave time for you to repeat after me.


Think about this thing, that thing, and those things.
Think about this thing, that thing, and those things.


If you learned to create the th sound between your teeth, and that is how you do it, and you can do it correctly, by all means, continue to do it that way. There is nothing wrong with it! However, if you are still having trouble with the th sounds, try this other way and see if it is easier for you.

This information is available in my first book, "Pronunciation Pages, Sounds of American English," and online Pronuncian subscribers have additional listening practice to check that you are hearing either the unvoiced th or the voiced th sound when appropriate. You can subscribe or buy the book online at www.pronuncian.com. Your purchases and subscriptions are what have kept this podcast coming to you every week.

I'll link to the free online lessons and previous forum posts regarding these sounds along with the transcripts to this show on Pronuncian.com.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening everyone.

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