181: The troublesome 'thr' /θr/ combination

Practice words like 'three, through, throw, thread,' and 'threaten.'


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 181st episode.

One sound combination that seems to be difficult for native speakers of nearly every language is the thr- combination. This combination requires flowing smoothly from one difficult sound into another difficult sound. When these sounds occur side-by-side, they definitely require some special attention. So today, we'll give it some of that loving practice that makes it possible to become fluent with this combination.

First, you need to understand that the th sound in all thr- /θr/ combinations is the unvoiced th sound /θ/. It's the th sound /θ/ in the word think, not the th sound in the word them /ð/. I'll say both of these sounds side-by-side, so you can hear the difference.

unvoiced th /θ/ (unvoiced th) think
voiced th /ð/ (voiced th) them

If you put your finders against the front of your throat, you shouldn't feel any vibration for the unvoiced th sound, but you will for the voiced th sound. That vibration of the vocal folds is the difference between these sounds.

The trick to creating the th sounds is to put the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth and force the air out of your mouth through the tiny space between the tip of your tongue and your top front teeth. Most of my students have had a teacher previously tell them to put the tip of their tongue between the front teeth and blow. While that method will also work, and it's easy to say all by itself, the problem is that it makes it very hard to link that sound with sounds before and after it. The tongue has to move too far, which then causes learners to not even try it, which leads substituting the t sound /t/, d sound /d/, s sound /s/, or z sound /z/ in place of the unvoiced or voiced th sounds. It's just easier to keep the tip of your tongue inside your mouth.

For an illustration of where the tip of the tongue should be for these sounds, go to the voiced and unvoiced th sound lesson, which I'll link to from this episode's transcript page.

Say the unvoiced th sound /θ/ with me: (unvoiced th), think

Now, let your vocal folds vibrate and say the voiced th sound /ð/: (voiced th), them

Before we practice adding the r sound /r/ onto the unvoiced th sound /θ/, let's practice the r sound /r/ alone. This is another sound that can be made easier than what a lot of teachers teach. The trick to a nice, clean r sound /r/ is to use the back of your tongue to create the sound. This is called the "molar r," and although it sounds complicated when I describe it, the sound that most non-native English speakers produce when saying it this way is clearer and sounds closer to the sound native English speakers create. Here's how to do it:

  1. Lift the back of the tongue so that the sides of the back of the tongue press into the upper back teeth
  2. Keep the centerline of the tongue low
  3. Let the air pass over the centerline

It doesn't matter too much what the tip of your tongue is doing during this sound, as long as it doesn't touch anything or curl backward. If you want to see an illustration of this, I'll also link to the lesson that shows this sound from this episode's transcript page.

Let's practice the r sound a little bit. Repeat after me:

(r sound)

Got it? Good. Because now we're going to make it harder and put the r sound /r/ after the unvoiced th sound /θ/. The goal is to produce the unvoiced th /θ/ and not a t sound /t/ or s sound /s/, and then transition into the r sound /r/ without tapping the tip of the tongue to the tooth ridge in the process.

Let's say just the thr- /θr/ combination to begin with: (unvoiced th+r sound) /θr/, (unvoiced th+r sound) /θr/, (unvoiced th+r sound) /θr/

Now let's say some words that begin with this difficult combination:


Did you tap your r sound /r/ during any of those words? A tapped r sound /r/ would sound like: (tapped three, three). That's the sound you don't want.

Let's practice those words again. They should sound like:


The thr- combination is not the only initial sound combination that includes an r sound. There are lots of others, and I'll link to the lesson that includes all of those from this episodes transcript page as well. You can find that page by going to www.pronuncian.com/podcast and clicking "episode 181."

That's all for today, everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn. Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.