Vol. 11, Issue 2, December 2010

Pronunciation Corner
Joyce Mandell

Joyce Mandell

The Voiced "th"

As pronunciation coaches/trainers, it is our job to attend to those features of a student’s accent that stand in the way of being understood clearly and easily.  When I do a diagnosis for someone, I will often create a hierarchy of problem areas and work on the ones that cause the most problems in comprehension.  Especially with learners who are in the early stages of pronunciation training, accent coaches tend to ignore focusing on the substitution of /d /for the voiced th simply because there are so many other errors to work on that cause more confusion.  As it is, the th sound does not exist in too many other languages; most students have a very hard time getting used to putting their tongue between their teeth to make that interdental phoneme.  In general, substituting the /d/ for the voiced th will usually not cause grave misunderstanding.  Still, for advanced learners, mastery of this sound definitely raises the status of a speaker of English.  In American culture, native speakers who substitute the /d/ for the voiced th  (“dis” for “this,”  “dat” for “that”) are often accused of speaking sub-standard English and are viewed as being less educated.  It is clearly a stigmatized sound, so for the advanced speaker of English it is well worth spending some time on correct placement and production of this important sound.

One of the techniques I use is to get the learner to notice the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables.  For the most part, the voiced th sound appears in unstressed syllables and in words that are function words (such as this, that, those, than, them, another, etc.).  Getting the learner to hit the sound weakly and lightly, reducing it to almost just a gentle touch to the back of the teeth, often helps. I remind  them not to “hang out” too long with these words – just dart the tongue quickly, barely grazing the teeth, and snap it back just as fast.  You want to make sure that they don’t try to produce this sound with a relaxed and weak tongue that sticks out too far and stays out too long  – it really is a tiny movement.  A lot of practice of just darting the tongue back and forth to get the proper look and feel is of utmost importance.  Remind them to blow air over the top of the tongue – they should be making some kind of muffled sound as the airstream blows over the tongue.

The next step is to give the learners a bunch of phrases where they must practice the movement – almost like putting a few dance steps together.  Phrases like “the other brother, “that the,” “other than another one,” get the learner to practice a fast transition between the sounds.  The vital step here is to make sure the movement is so quick that they have no time to substitute “dat” for “that.”   Finally, I put whole sentences together, incorporating the little “th” phrases that they’ve practiced, such as the following:

I know that the other brother is absent.   I think that they are always together.   I want the other one.

In general, getting to feel comfortable not only with the placement of this sound but with the timing of this sound takes a bit of practice and conscious attention.  Since the words that utilize the voiced th sound are so common in English, students have ample opportunity to practice with almost every utterance. 


Joyce Mandell has been teaching speech and pronunciation skills to the non-native speaker for over 15 years, working in a variety of educational and business settings.  She is an adjunct at Baruch College in both Continuing and Professional Studies and the Communication Studies Department, where she teaches public speaking.  She also works individually with business professionals.

Feel free to contact her with questions or suggestions at dialogue@nystesol.org.