A pronunciation guide
Pronunciation of the “th” sound can be very challenging for ESL students. It is very often pronounced incorrectly by non-native speakers. So taking time to learn and practice correct pronunciation can aid in accent reduction and clearer pronunciation.
The correct pronunciation of most “th” sounds requires you to stick your tongue out of your mouth slightly so that the tip of your tongue is touching your top teeth. You should be able to see your tongue in a mirror. ESL students often find that it feels strange to stick the tongue that far out when speaking. As a result, they often place the tongue behind the teeth rather than on the teeth. This tongue placement is what causes the incorrect “s”, ‘t” or “d” sounds by non-native speakers. If you can master the correct placement of your tongue during “th” sounds, you will greatly reduce your accent.
In most cases a “th” in English is pronounced in one of two ways, a voiceless “th” as in “think” or a voiced “th” as in “those”. The student must therefore understand whether the “th” sound is voiced or voiceless.
It may be helpful to review voiced and voiceless sounds in English.The simple difference between voiced and voiceless sounds is that in voiced sounds,the vocal chords vibrate. In voiceless sounds, the vocal chords do not vibrate. The easiest way to illustrate the difference between these two sounds is to place your fingers on your throat while making the “s” sound and then the “z” sound. Do you notice the difference? You should be able to quickly identify the “s” sound as being voiceless and the “z” sound as being voiced.
Practicing tongue placement, understanding voiced and voiceless sounds and listening to spoken English by native speakers as often as possible will help you master the “th” sounds. I have found a great video on Pronunciation of “th” sounds. This one may be helpful to you in understanding tongue placement and voiced/voiceless for proper “th” sounds.
So, now that you know how to pronounce “th”, how do you decide which “th” to use? There are some guidelines to which sound to use. There are some exceptions to these rules, but most “th” sounds will follow the rules below.
‘th” at Beginning of Word:
In most cases, the “th” at the beginning of a word is pronounced as voiceless. Examples are:
Thistle, three, thank, theme, theater, theory, thermal
There are a few common function words that are exceptions to this rule. The following words are pronounced as voiced:
The, this, that, these, those, they them, their, theirs, thou, thee, they, there, then, than, thus, though
“th” at end of Word.
In most cases, the “th” at end of a word is pronounced as voiceless. Examples are:
With, bath, cloth, south, earth, length,
The exception is with verbs (usually ending in “the”), which are pronounced as voiced.
Bathe, soothe, breathe, clothe
Adding verb endings onto the words does not change the “th” pronunciation. The same pronunciation for the base word is used. (This is also the rule with compound words.) These words are all pronounced as voiced.
Bathes, soothing, breathing, clothed
“th” in middle of Word.
In most cases, the “th” in the middle of a word is pronounced as voiced. Here are some examples:
Mother, brother, father, weather
There are exceptions to this rule as well. These are mostly for compound words or adverbs whose base word ends in “th”. For adverbs ending in y or in compound words, the “th” would be voiceless, the same as for the base word. Here are some examples:
Health, healthy (both voiceless)
Deciding on whether the “th” sound you see in a word is voiced or voiceless can be tricky, so it helps to get as much practice with these words as possible. The more words you learn the better you will understand how to pronounce words you have not yet seen. As part of your ongoing English development, learn new “th” words and practice their pronunciation as much as possible. Test your knowledge of “th” pronunciation with this “th” Pronunciation Quiz and good luck.
If you are looking for more help with pronunciation and accent reduction, I do offer private tutoring. I am a qualified ESL tutor and have successfully coached many English learners.