1: The English 'th sounds' /θ, ð/

Yes, we have two 'th sounds,' /θ/ and /ð/and they are both very important.

PRACTICE: "Think about this thing, that thing, and those things."


Welcome to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation podcast. Not all Americans speak alike, but I'll help you get closer to how the majority of us do. By the way, my name is Mandy.

You can find transcripts of this podcast and lots of practice activities at www.pronuncian.com. You will also find our practice sentences there, like today's practice sentence, "Think about this thing, that thing, and those things."

I'm going to begin today with two sounds that cause trouble for nearly every non-native English speaker, no matter what their first language is: the th sounds. Yes, there are two th sounds. One is voiced, and the other isn't. What do I mean, voiced? I mean that our vocal cords are vibrating during the sound. We have a lot of pairs of sounds that are voiced and unvoiced, but most of them are spelled differently from one another.

For example, the d sound is voiced, but the t sound isn't. Other than that, the two sounds are very, very similar. There are two easy ways to tell if a sound is voiced or not. One is to put two fingers against the front of your throat and say the sound. If it is voiced, you should feel a vibration. Some people will plug their ears with their finger and say the sound. You should notice a big difference between the sound during a voiced or unvoiced sound while your ears are plugged. The b sound and p sound are another voiced/unvoiced pair, as are the g sound and k sound. The voiced th sound and unvoiced th sound just happen to be spelled the same.

Can you tell me if the th sound in the word the is voiced or unvoiced (the)? How about the word think (think)?

The word "the" has a voiced th sound, and "think" has an unvoiced th sound. If you aren't confident that you know whether a word has a voiced or unvoiced th sound, it's time to learn the symbols your dictionary uses, or ask a native speaker if a word starts with the same sound as in the word "the" or the word "think". If you ask him or her if it is a voiced or unvoiced th, that person will probably not know what you're talking about. Interestingly enough, people usually understand very little about how they talk. This is because we all learned our native language long before we knew what we were learning. We were really just trying to get our parents to give us what we wanted.

So what is the right way to make the th sounds? Well, to correctly create both th sounds, the tip of your tongue has to be touching the back of your upper front teeth while pushing air out between the tongue and the bony ridge behind the upper front teeth. Let me repeat that. The tip of your tongue has to be touching the back of your upper front teeth with the tip of the tongue while pushing air out between the tongue and the bony ridge behind the upper front teeth. It's okay if the tongue is between the top and bottom teeth a little, but most people find it difficult to push your tongue that far forward, and it isn't necessary. The difference between the sounds is in using the vocal cords or not.

Also, the th sounds are fricatives. What's a fricative? A fricative is a continuous sound that is created by allowing only a small amount of air to leave the mouth, which causes friction, and sound. Something special about fricatives is that we can continue to make the sound for as long as we have breath in our lungs. I can say either th sound for a long time.

(voiced thunvoiced th)

(Practice more unvoiced th and voiced th here.)

If you can't do that, you are probably stopping the air at the beginning of the sound. This creates a different kind of sound, usually something that sounds like a t sound or d sound to a native English speaker.

The th sounds are pretty important in English. Some of the most frequent words we say begin with a th sound. According to Wiktionary's word frequency chart, the words: that's that, then, there, they, the, and think are all in the top 100 words we say. That Wiktionary corpus isn't the most scientifically derived, but I like it because it is made from television and movie scripts, so it is more geared for counting words we say than the words we write. Since we speak less formally than we write, this is a good guide to use for pronunciation purposes.

Here's a little sentence to help you practice your th sounds. Ready? Here it is: "Think about this thing, that thing, and those things." Here it is again. "Think about this thing, that thing, and those things." That sentence forces you to alternate between th sounds. Make sure your th's don't sound like t's, or d's, or s's, or z'z, or f's. I don't want to hear "zis sing, zat sing,' or 'dis ting, dat ting' or 'dat fing'. Focus on nice clear th's. "Think about this thing, that thing, and those things."

We have lots more practice on pronuncian.com, including over 5000 audio files for specific sound practice. You can find a whole list of word that contain the th sounds, not just at the beginning of the word, like we practiced here, but also in the middle and end of the word. You can also practice words that are called minimal pairs. Minimal pairs are sets of words that are the same except for one sound. If you know you tend to say a t sound instead of a th sound, you can practice pairs of words like, "tin-thin, boat, both, or pat, path to help you break the habit of saying the wrong sound.

Well, I hope you've memorized that sentence by now, "Think about this thing, that thing, and those things."

There you go. Have a great week everyone, and have fun with those th sounds!