Have you been struggling with how to pronounce the th sound? Ask any American how to pronounce the /th/ sounds (yes, there are 2 of them) and they’ll tell you to put your tongue between your upper & lower front teeth. Even speech professionals are out there telling you to do this.
In the Google results of “How to Pronounce the TH sound” you’ve got people wanting you to stick out your tongue. If you take a course on accent reduction and your teacher insists that you spend time sticking your tongue out of your mouth, run away fast!
Do not do this! Sticking your tongue out to pronounce the /th/ sounds is yet another pervasive misconception of Standard American English. Watch the national news anchors as they report the news.
Their mouths are hardly moving & their tongues do not come out of their mouths. So, finally, no, you do not have to stick your tongue out!
How To Improve the Sound of Your Voice
How to Pronounce the TH Sound
In the International Phonetic Alphabet, the /th/ sounds are called “interdental fricatives.” “Inter” meaning “between” and “dental” meaning teeth. “Fricative” means that the sound creates friction.
So it makes perfect sense that people think they should put their tongues between their teeth.
But Americans with good speech very rarely put their tongue between the teeth and very often don’t even use a fricative! They stop the sound instead.
I’ll back up.
A stop sound is one where you stop the air for a moment. /p/ & /b/ are two examples. Just for giggles say the words, “above” and “computer” aloud. I’ll wait. Did you feel how the air stopped momentarily?
You know already that Fricatives are called such because they create friction. The air is continuous & forced through a small space; thus creating friction. Cute, right? /s/ & /z/are two examples.
You know you want to try these! They’re fun! Let’s try “Mississippi” & “Let’s go to the zoo!” Did you feel how your tongue created a small space on the roof of your mouth (alveolar ridge) and the air was forced through? That’s a fricative sound.
There are two /th/ sounds. One is voiced as in “those” and the other is voiceless as in “thunder.” Hear the difference? They are made in the same place & manner. The “those” one uses vocal cord vibration. You can put your hand on your throat and feel the vibration. Again, for giggles, do the same with /s/ & /z/ 🙂
Speech for the Shakespearean Actor
Ok, if you’re going on stage to play the role of Hamlet or Juliet do go crazy popping /t/s and sticking your tongue out for the /th/ sounds. But if you live a fairly normal existence you’ll need a fairly normal American English speaking pattern.
You may like: American Accent–Are You Making These 3 Common Pronunciation Mistakes
Pronouncing the TH Sounds
In running speech, the /th/ sounds are produced by lightly touching the back of your upper teeth with the tip of your tongue to create a combo stop/fricative sound. Let’s try this sentence:
Martha was scared of the thunder
If you say it with your tongue out you’ll sound staccato & stiff & you’ll find it leads to sounding pompous and not-so-great for relationships.
If you just lightly & quickly touch your tongue to the inside of the front teeth for the 3 /th/ sounds you’ll be crystal clear, magnetic & people will be surrounding you trying to get your digits.
Let’s try it again:
Martha was scared of the thunder
Try it a few times with the recorder. You’ll be surprised at how good you sound. Don’t be afraid of your recorder. You want to have great relationships and have people respect you. You need to work on your communication skills more than you work on nearly everything else in your life.
You need them for your family and friends and of course for your career!
How to Speak with an American Accent
Here’s one of the problems with trying to stick your tongue out learning how to pronounce the th sound: You’ve got a lot of low-information words with /th/. The, that, there, this, with, the list goes on.
If you’re focused on pronouncing those sounds as an interdental fricative, you’ll spend too much time on unimportant words. This causes people to have a harder time understanding you! Isn’t that ironic? Timing is everything! (I owe my dad a quarter for the cliche–but it was worth it!)
Americans process information based on intonation–the music of speech–not based on the pronunciation of sounds. Here’s an article on how to use intonation correctly.
So the good news is: The TH doesn’t need to be dreaded after all! TH away! You’ll end up sounding crystal clear & highly effective as a communicator.
Real Communication Skills
Since undergrad, when I meet people for the first time & tell them I’m a Speech-Language Pathologist, they tell me they don’t want to open their mouths in front of me. As if I’m going to judge them for their diction.
This has never been the case. I’ve always known that communication skills are not about diction but about the love you can send to others, the relationships you can build. It’s about having fun with people, helping people. Not about impressing people.
So if your speech is not crystal clear, then, by all means, work on it. In fact, we all should. But it’s not about popping /t/s and /th/s with tongues out. It’s about delivering your message with sincerity, love, and passion.
3 thoughts on “American Accent–Pronouncing the Dreaded TH”
All your articles are so informative, and all the points are almost beautifully explained. Thank you so much for doing this for learners. Tha k you.
Very eyeopening and jaw-dropping (and tongue waving) article 😉 I gotta share this piece with my Asian friends!
Wow! I learned a lot from this. I have had colleagues who tell their Kindergarten students to stick out their tongue when pronouncing the “th” sound.