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English pronunciation tips for French speakers 1: the ‘th’ sound

In this series of blogs I’ll be taking a look at some of the key aspects of British English pronunciation which can cause difficulties for native French speakers. While French and English share some common ground, particularly in the lexical roots of many words, the differences in pronunciation are significant and can prove an important obstacle for students achieving a desired level of fluency. The first blogs of this series will focus on those consonant sounds in English which are particularly tricky for French speakers to articulate.

An important point when considering the phonology of English consonants is that many are found in pairs. This means that the mechanics of producing each of the paired sounds is the same (the mouth holds the same position). The difference in sound then arises from whether the sound is articulated using the vocal cords (voiced), or not (unvoiced). For example if you place your hand on your throat when saying the words 'vanilla' and 'fair', you will notice the vibration of the voice in the /v/ phoneme and no vibration with the unvoiced /f/. The principle with other voiced and unvoiced consonants is the same.

The voiced and unvoiced ‘th’ sound. (/θ/ /ð/)

Many of the consonant sounds in French and English are shared, but there are a few key distinctions. The most typically mispronounced consonant I see amongst my students (French speakers but also others) is the ‘th’ sound. The ‘th’ sound in English is an inter-dental sound (meaning it is produced with the tongue protruding between the teeth), which is non-existent in French. A lot of language learners initially have problems with this sound, and it is often substituted with the voiced /d/ and unvoiced /t/ sounds. French speakers, however, are more likely to substitute with the voiced /z/ and unvoiced /s/ sounds. This results in undesirable mispronounced words e.g., 'that' pronounced zat, and 'think' pronounced sink.

One of the reasons many language learners do often not address the ‘th’ pronunciation at an early stage appears to be due to shyness over the mechanics of the sound. Students can feel a little bit uncomfortable experimenting with a sound which requires you to stick your tongue out, particularly in a classroom environment. However, with a little bit of practice it is relatively easy to master these phonemes. A decent starting point to produce this sound correctly is to look at the /f/ and /v/ sound. Like the ‘th’ sound these phonemes are fricatives, which are articulated through a constricted flow of air producing a hissing sound. However, unlike the ‘th’ sound, /f/ and /v/ are found in French. Some common examples are ‘neuf’ and ‘avion’. These sounds are made by placing the top teeth on the lower lip (known as labio dental articulation) and forcing the air through the friction that is created by this position. To move from the /f/ phoneme to the voiceless th (/θ/), you simply have to move the tongue from behind the teeth to in-between the teeth.

A great video to practise the mechanics of voiced and voiceless ‘th’ can be found on youtube:

As illustrated in the above video it is important to exaggerate and almost hang on the focused sound to get a feeling for the mechanics. Once you have mastered this sound, you should be able to move effortlessly between /θ/ and /ð/, and likewise between any other consonant pair (e.g. /f/ and /v/), by engaging and disengaging the vocal cords for the respective voiced or unvoiced consonant.

That’s it for this entry. In the next blog I’ll take a look at a second common consonant pronunciation problem – the /h/ sound