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5 hyper-relevant tips for pronouncing the TH cluster in American English! Finish this video, practice for a few minutes and enjoy the results. If you’re an advanced or fluent English student, use this video to check your pronunciation accuracy…are you SURE you’ve got the TH sound just right? Let’s see!
The TH sound is one of the trickiest for my students to master, and in this video you’re going to get 5 powerful “aha tips” to turn on the light bulb so you can master this sound. After the tips we’ll do some comparisons and you’ll see me trying to teach my toddler this sound.
I’m going over the tips I use when I’m working with a student. As you’re actually practicing the TH and getting it, this will be what you’ll want to watch. These tips will help you finally get this really tough sound. You may have already seen my how-to video on the TH, a great video with illustrations and up-close, slow motion views of the mouth. I’ll link to that at the end of the video if you want to see it again.
Tip 1: TH is not a stop consonant. Voiced, unvoiced, it’s the same: it’s a free flow of air. I’ve worked with many students who put pressure into their sound, which stops the air. Then it sounds like this: th, th, th. A release. We don’t want a stop and release, we want a gentle, free flow of air. Th, th, th. Try that with me now. Th, th. So, no stop, no pressure.
Tip 2, and this will help with the light free flow of air: It’s just the very tip of the tongue that comes through the teeth. I’ve seen lots of students really working on the TH, and they bring too much of their tongue out. That makes it harder to have a lighter sound. Here is an excerpt from a live class where I’m talking about this.
Okay, I think it’s possible that more of your tongue is coming out than it needs to.
Think, it’s not this, it’s instead this, right, it’s very subtle.
Let me get my camera here, I’m gonna bring the camera to my mouth rather than vice versa. So, some people will do
the T-H like this. That’s way too much tongue, it should be this.
That’s not very much coming through, is it?
The, the, the, that’s not, thank you, the, the.
We never want anything like that, it’s so much the tip, the tip, the, the, the, the.
Tip 3: One idea that I’ve seen help students is change how you think of it: don’t think of it as the tongue tip coming through the teeth. Think of it as the very top of the tongue pressing up on the bottom of the top front teeth. So this part, pressing lightly up here, th, th, th. That helps the bottom of the jaw be less tight up against the teeth and allows for that free flow of air. So the tongue does come through the teeth, but just changing your idea about the point of contact can really help. Th, th, just a light press up on the bottom of the top front teeth.
Watch a student making an adjustment:
And also another thing is and I know you’re doing it extra hard because we’re working on it but we shouldn’t be pressing too much air into it. There’s not that much air in a T-H. Le me hear you just do that.
Right, and even that might be a little too much air. So, you can think of taking some pressure out it’s a little bit easier. And another thing can help with the T-H. Rather than thinking about the tongue coming between the teeth, think about the tongue-tip lightly touching the top teeth, the bottoms of them.
So, you think of this being your point of contact rather than both. Just think about the top.
Right, right, that sounds a little bit better. It sounds a little bit lighter to me. It sounds like there’s little bit less pressure maybe.
And for some people that can just be simplifying. Okay, I’m not thinking of it coming through the teeth but I’m just thinking of it lifting and it just, like, peaks out as it lifts and touches the bottom of the top front teeth. And that just little adjustment can sometimes really make the difference it it being more relaxed.
Tip 4: There is a voiced and an unvoiced version of this sound. Position is the same (sort of! See tip 5!). This is true of a lot of sound pairs in English, P and B, S and Z, but we tend to think of those as two separate sounds. For both TH sounds, we call them the TH, but there are still two of them. So, TH, unvoiced when you just let air through, th– or th– th– TH when you make a vocal sound, it’s voiced, th– th– So the TH in ‘thin’ is a different sound than the TH in ‘this’. Th– ‘thin’ it’s unvoiced, and th– ‘this’ th– it’s voiced.
Tip 5: there is a shortcut you can do for the voiced TH when it begins an unstressed word. This happens a lot, because the most common word in English, THE, begins with the voiced TH and is unstressed. For these cases, you don’t actually need to bring the tongue tip through the teeth. You can press it behind the teeth.
Watch me talk about it in a lesson:
And if it’s a word like the, or that, or this, that’s unstressed then it’s even, it often
doesn’t even come through. It would be this, the, the and you can see, it’s pressing there you can see it through the teeth. But it’s not actually coming through. We do that with the word, the, all the time.
It really helps seeing it up close like that, doesn’t it? That last one is a tip that really makes a big difference: you don’t actually need to bring the tongue tip through the teeth because in those unstressed words, we want to make them so short, we just don’t want to take the time to bring the tip all the way through. Practice the word ‘the’ with me, and make sure your tongue is touching behind the teeth, not coming all the way through.
The, the, the, the, the, the, the, the. Notice how quickly I’m making that: the, the. The best, the only, the kitchen, the subway, the video, the other. the, the, the, the, the.
Now let’s do some comparisons. If you don’t have this sound in your own language, there is a good chance you’re substituting a different sound for it.
For the voiced TH, the most common mistake is to make a D sound instead. So ‘brother’ sounds like ‘bruder’, and ‘the’ sounds like ‘de’. Now, these might sound the same to you, but they sound different to native speakers. So if you know the difference in tongue position, you should still be able to make the sound correctly. The tongue tip is making light contact, you don’t stop the air of course for the TH.
For the D, tongue tip is at the roof of the mouth. And you do stop the air. Da- da-. And you know the shortcut for words like ‘the’ from tip 5: the tongue tip presses against the backs of teeth, but that’s still not lifted, it’s still not at the roof of the mouth, because that would be a D. A common mistake is to make the F instead of the unvoiced TH. Th– instead of th–.
My son Stoney does this. He’s three, and it’s the only sound he can’t get yet. He substitutes other sounds. For example, he’ll say ‘hing’ instead of ‘thing’, and he’ll say ‘marfa’ instead of ‘Martha’. He’ll say ‘free’ instead of ‘three’.
When you’re mistakenly substituting the F for TH, it’s something you can see. Your bottom lip is doing the work, that’s the F. Ff– ff– free. You know that’s wrong for the unvoiced TH, the tongue tip has to come through the teeth. Th– th– three. Watch me try to have Stoney do this.
Stoney and I are trying to learn the TH sound, and we’re using the name Martha, and Stoney keeps making an F sound and saying Marfa, let me see. Marfa. Right, that’s an F. Now watch me, honey. See my tongue? Can you try? Leave it out.
>> Leave it out.
You want to look on there?
So you’re going Marf–, you’re using your lip, but you want to use your tongue. Try your tongue. Put your tongue through your teeth. No, almost. Okay, bring your tongue tip through your teeth. Can you do that?
No, it’s not Marfa. Watch this, Stoney, do it with your tongue.
Did you see your sticker on the video ?
One more time.
Okay, we’re gonna keep working on that because you’re making an F instead of a TH.
I never did get him to bring the tongue tip through the teeth. Every time he tried, it was just the bottom lip that did the work.
And finally S and Z. It’s really common to substitute these two sounds for the TH. S for the unvoiced TH, and Z for the voiced TH. So ‘think’ sounds like ‘sink’: What do you ‘sink’? And ‘the’ sounds like ‘zee’: ‘Zee only’.
Here I’m working with a student who has a hard time making two definite and different sounds, S and TH. I talk about how to work on creating two distinct, clear, accurate sounds. It does take time, you’re changing muscle memory and habit, but it’s worth it. After you put in that work and that time, you have what you wanted.
Okay, so, let me hear you say, think.
Good. Let me hear you say, sink.
Okay, now I’m saying it with an S, sink.
Okay, that sounds like a T-H to me. So, let’s get back to the S sound being really focused right here.
Right. Okay, so, that’s the S. Now, let’s switch back to the TH, tongue lightly touching the bottom of the top front teeth, think.
Right. And now, back to an S, teeth together, really focused sound, sink.
Right. Good, okay, when this class goes into the Academy, which it usually takes one to two weeks, come back and watch this part. We’re moving really slowly, really intentionally, thinking about the sound first, thinking about the position and then saying it.
And now they’re becoming more clear. TH is becoming much more TH, S becoming much more S. And so, I think you’re gonna have to work that slowly here for a while. And what I would do, is I would do some where you’re doing a minimal pair like this, think, sink, and really think about the position before you make it. But then I would also take some days where you just go work on S.
And that entire time, you’re thinking about a very narrow, focused S sound. And then days where you’re just working on TH. And there you’re thinking about light, no pressure in the sound and the bottom of the top front teeth being your contact. So, I think that you know, you’ve said you’ve done a lot of work but to me the two sounds weren’t distinct.
And so, you may have been really solidifying something that was not clear. And so, now we need to stop practicing over and over, and just practice on the clarity which is very slow like you’ve seen. Stopping, thinking of a position, making it. But then it was really cleaning up the sounds and they were really starting to sound more accurate, more clear.
So, spend your time being very intentional. And then you can say, okay, now I’m taking the S, I’m feeling more confident in the S. And you can do more of the listen and repeat, where you’re being less intentional and you’re just going on what you hear. But I think for now, because it’s a strong habit, of sort of a TH-S mix. Because that’s a habit, it’s important to really stop, think before you make the sound. And that’s very tedious but that phase won’t last too long if you really do it. If you really dedicate your time to that, it will start to become a habit, the sounds will start to
be more clear for you.
Now you heard me talking about practicing in the Academy. That’s my online school where I’ve developed all kinds of materials to help my students train, change their muscle memory, develop the right sounds, rhythm, and intonation of American English. That’s also where I teach these live classes once a month. It is the best way to improve your listening comprehension and pronunciation of American English. I’ll put a link here and also in the video description, so that you can join if you’d like. I have students from all over the world, come join me in the Academy.
I hope this video has helped! Now go work on the TH sounds. And please use the Comments to tell me about why this video was helpful. Which of these Tips do you think is the most important and why? What specific teaching will you be putting into action?
And here’s the lesson I told you about at the beginning of this video, the how-to video on these sounds. Be sure to check it out if you haven’t seen it before.
That’s it, and thanks so much for using Rachel’s English.