The ‘th’ sound is a very difficult sound to pronounce. But does it actually matter for intelligibility. Does it make any difference for clear pronunciation?
Watch the video for more information.
The ‘th’ sound, the interdental fricative is a really difficult one, isn’t it? As a student of English I remember struggling with it for a very very long time. I also remember as a teacher trying to teach it to my students who in turn were struggling with it quite a lot as well.
But now an important question to ask ourselves is: does this sound actually matter when it comes to pronunciation for English as a lingua franca? Does it matter for clear pronunciation?
Let’s see what the research has to tell us.
The goal of pronunciation teaching
So let’s get down first to the issue of having clear pronunciation, because this really is what teaching pronunciation for English as a lingua franca is all about. And in my opinion, teaching pronunciation should never be about changing someone’s accent, making them sound like they’re from London or New York.
Teaching pronunciation should be about helping your students be easy to understand in international contexts.
What does clear pronunciation mean?
Now, what does easy to understand in international contexts mean? What does teaching pronunciation for English as a lingua franca mean?
And in this article I went over the reasons why teaching pronunciation for English as a Lingua Franca is so important.
But just to give you a very quick idea, researchers for the last 20 years have basically been analyzing conversations that people have in international, multilingual contexts. They’ve been able to identify the pronunciation features that are really really important for having clear pronunciation and for being easy to understand: consonants, consonant clusters, vowel length and nuclear/tonic stress.
And one of these pronunciation features that researchers have looked at is the interdental fricative ‘th’. There is a voiceless one, like in three, for example, or it can be voiced, as in brother, for example. And it’s called interdental because the tongue will be placed in between your teeth when you pronounce this sound.
And as I mentioned, it is an incredibly difficult sound. This might be because it’s very uncommon. There are very few languages that will have that sound. One exception is Spanish from Spain, where the th will also appear.
Is the ‘th’ sound important for clear pronunciation?
So a question we want to ask ourselves is: is it actually important for intelligibility? Is it important for clear pronunciation?
It turns out that it is NOT important at all. In other words, if you pronounce the interdental fricative differently, for example as a f or as a t, this does not matter at all for having clear pronunciation. It will not affect your pronunciation negatively at all. You’ll still be easy to understand.
And I’m not saying it because I think it’s true but it’s really based on the last two decades of research into pronunciation in international contexts. You can see some articles that you might want to check out down below.
Alternative pronunciation of the ‘th’
So what are the alternatives that your students could use instead of pronouncing the th letters as an interdental fricative?
For example, they could pronounce it as t and d. And in fact, if you still feel that ‘native speakers’ are better models of pronunciation, if you still feel that your students should aspire to speak like ‘native speakers’, well, you’ll be happy to find out that quite a lot of ‘native speakers’ actually pronounce the letters th as t and f. One example is Irish English users. In some accents in Ireland they say /tri:/ and /tri:/ both for the number and for the thing that grows in the wood.
Another option for pronouncing the th sound is as a f or v, so as a voiceless or voiced labiodental fricative.
And again there are many ‘native speakers’ who pronounce the letters th in that way. For example in London you might hear brover instead of brother.
There is some evidence that pronouncing the th as s or as a z sound might be a little bit confusing. Thus, some researchers suggest that perhaps t and d, and f and v are the clearest alternatives.
What should you do with this information as an English teacher? I’m not saying that you should never ever teach your students the interdental fricative.
What I’m saying is that it should be very very very very low on your list of priorities when it comes to teaching pronunciation. Because if this sound is so difficult for learners to master, but on the other hand it’s completely irrelevant to having clear pronunciation, this would suggest to me as a teacher that there is little point in teaching it to our learners.
In fact, I would go as far as tell my learners that it’s okay to pronounce it as a t or d, or f or v.
- Deterding, D. (2013). Misunderstandings in English as a Lingua Franca: An Analysis of ELF Interactions in South-East Asia. Mouton de Gruyter.
- Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language: New models, new norms, new goals. Oxford University Press.
- Jeong, H., Thorén, B., & Othman, J. (2017). Mutual intelligibility of Malay- and Swedish-accented English: An experimental study. Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 7(1), 43–53.
- O’Neal, G. (2015). Consonant clusters and intelligibility in English as a Lingua Franca in Japan: Phonological modifications to restore intelligibility in ELF. Pragmatics and Society, 6(4), 615–636. https://doi.org/10.1075/ps.6.4.07one