Updated: Oct 27, 2021
The TH digraph is one of the most distinct features of English and at the same time one of the most challenging to pronounce for English learners.
So, why is it so difficult to learn?
Because it simply doesn’t exist in many languages and people don’t know how to properly activate their sound apparatus to produce the sound.
Think of TH as yoga. It takes a lot of stretching and exploring your body, or your mouth cavity in this case, to be able to make it work.
How is the TH sound made?
There are actually two sounds behind that digraph, an unvoiced TH and a voiced TH.
To pronounce both of the sounds you need to:
- put your tongue behind your upper teeth but be careful not to press it against them
- release the air and make it last a bit
So, what’s it all about the voiced and unvoiced sound?
It’s about your vocal cords. When you make a voiced sound they vibrate, when you need an unvoiced sound, they don’t. It’s that simple.
So, when you say ‘birthday’, TH is unvoiced or in other words your vocal cords don’t vibrate and when you say ‘with’, TH is voiced, which means your vocal cords vibrate.
How do I know which ones which?
The thing is you don’t. We don’t have any spelling-based clues as for when it’s voiced or not. The only way to learn it, like with most of English words, is by heart. You need to remember where the TH gives a voiced sound and where it doesn’t.
1. Replacing an unvoiced TH with /t/, /s/ or /f/. There’s a difference between ‘free’, ‘tree’ and ‘three’.
2. Replacing a voiced TH with /d/, /v/ or /z/. There’s a difference between ‘with’ and ‘whizz’.
3. Pressing your tongue against your teeth. It’s meant to just touch it a bit and make space for the air. It’s not /t/.
4. Keeping it too short. TH sounds are both a bit longer than plosive T.
Did this help? If you'd like to practise your TH pronunciation more, I'd be happy to help. You can book a private lesson with me (subject to availability) and we can practise TH as much as you like.