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I’m currently trying to learn correct pronunciation of th phonemes (/θ/, /ð/) since with my th-fronting I can’t pronounce words like thorough or thief.

Basically every online lesson states that I should stick my tongue between the teeth. For example, this video.

I tried that approach and after some struggling I was able to somehow pronounce single words like think, that, or the.

However, I can’t pronounce these words in the middle of the sentence as they break my breathing. I watched that video more closely and noticed that the woman did stick her tongue on the when she tried to emphasize correct pronunciation at 0:20, but she did not do this at 0:40 (or at least I didn’t notice it).

So the question is, are native English speakers actually able to pronounce in single breath phrases like at the beginning or what the heck “correctly” — that is, with sticking their tongue out?

I also found an article that proves my suspicions. It states

Don’t Place Your Tongue BETWEEN the Teeth – It’s WRONG!

but it’s too “unpopular” (video has only 1k views), so I’m not sure whether I can trust it.

Also, does UK/US make any difference here?

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    Native speakers don't experience it as you describe it (stick my tongue), but the tongue does ride the bottom of the upper teeth lightly. An Israeli friend diagnosed using Z to replace TH (Ziss apple and Zat orange) as fearing to 'stick your tongue out' in a rude gesture. If you feel you are doing that in learning this sound, go ahead and do so without fear of rudeness. The move goes unseen outside your mouth and greatly improves pronunciation. – Yosef Baskin May 10 '17 at 19:19
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    As @YosefBaskin says, native speakers don't actually thrust the tongue as far out as the lady in the video is doing; it feels to me more like sort of tapping the tongue against the (very narrow) opening between top and bottom teeth. But the exaggerated motion will work for /ð/, especially if enunciating each word carefully. It's more awkward for me to pronounce /θ/ with my tongue sticking out far enough to see, though—I sound like Sylvester the Cat. So I don't think this method is meant to teach that phoneme. – 1006a May 10 '17 at 19:33
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    1) to the title question, yes, all native speakers of English pronounce 'th' correctly. Children just learning often use 'd' instead but slide over to the fricative soon enough. Some dialects stick with 'd' and that is correct for their variety. 2) The accurate way to pronounce it does not need to have the tip all the way out beyond the teeth, you get the same sound when the tip is just about to appear (and that is what native speakers do). Foreign language learners are told to stick the tongue out beyond as an exaggeration. You don't have to in order to get the right sound. – Mitch May 10 '17 at 20:13
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    Also, there is considerable variation in how these are pronounced. They often neutralize (as in with, which appears both voiced and voiceless in most people's speech), and it's hampered by the low functional load of that contrast, which is not quite finished with its historical development, like most of the other English fricatives. – John Lawler May 10 '17 at 20:22
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    @shadeware Since you mean exactly that, I should correct myself and say, almost by definition, most Americans always pronounce the 'th' as a dental fricative in word initial or intervocalic positions, and they never 'fall back' to z/s/f (by definition of 'most Americans'). Sticking your tongue between your teeth is not what Americans do, but it gets you the same sound. To do it like a native, your tongue gets the same sound but just not by sticking it out so far (or rather at all; almost but not out). – Mitch May 10 '17 at 20:55
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In connected speech, /ð/ at the start of function words may be assimilated to a preceding consonant in some cases. However, I don't think there are any circumstances where this kind of assimilation always occurs—my impression is that it is gradient. Also, the identity of the preceding consonant probably affects the probability of assimilation.

I have found a source "Applied English Phonology", by Mehmet Yavas, that gives a more specific description of the conditions of this assimilation:

unstressed initial /ð/ in words such as the, this, that becomes assimilated (with or without complete assimilation) to previous alveolar consonants (e.g. what the heck [wɑt̪d̪əhɛk], run the course [ɹ̣ʌnːəkɔɹ̣s], till they see [tɪlːesi], how's the dog? [haʊzːədɔg], takes them [teksːəm]) (p. 67)

I think "takes them" may not be the best example of the phonetic process in question, since them additionally has an alternative form ’em that may occur after any consonant, not only alveolar consonants.

The fact that "in the" could be realized as [ɪnːə] or [ɪnə] rather than [ɪnðə] is mentioned in Geoff Lindsey's blog post "Lucas quiz – the answers".

Another known phonetic phenomenon is deletion (which could be seen as assimilation followed by mandatory shortening) of [θ] or [ð] before the suffix -(e)s. This is lexicalized for many speakers in the noun clothes /kloʊz/, although the non-assimilated pronunciation /kloʊðz/ is not uncommon either. Some speakers (I think a smaller number) also have this type of assimilation/deletion in the word "months", pronouncing it as [mʌnts]. This has been covered in other places on this site (e.g. How to distinguish 'month' and 'months' in pronunciation?)

As far as I know, no native speakers (without speech impediments) use [z] for /ð/, or [s] for /θ/, in contexts other than assimilation to an adjacent /s/ or /z/.

Some native speakers do use realizations other than [ð] and [θ] more generally—I discuss this in more detail in my answer to Do all native English speakers actually pronounce the "th" sound?—but as far as I know it is always something non-sibilant like [d̪], [d̪͡ð], [v]. If you can't manage [θ] in "thorough" or "thief", I would say it's better to fall back on [f] or [t] than to use [s].

As for "at the beginning" and "what the heck", if you pronounce them at a reasonable pace, it will probably not even be noticed if you use a dental stop [d̪] rather than a dental fricative.

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Place your tongue between your teeth, without actually biting it. Keep your jaws relaxed.

Test to see if you can breathe in. Then breathe out. That's the /θ/ phoneme right there.

Now all you have to do is add some vibration of your vocal chord while breathing, and you have the /ð/ phoneme.

It's the same difference as when shifting from f to v.

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    I assume you mean “make sure you can’t breathe in through your mouth” when you say “test to see if you can breath in.” – Jim May 10 '17 at 21:04
  • @Jim You should be able to breathe through your mouth. If you can breathe in, you can breathe out. That's how the /θ/ phoneme is produced. It's just air coming out your mouth while your tongue is placed between your teeth. – m.a.a. May 10 '17 at 21:16
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    When I pronounce /θ/, my tongue is between my teeth and not my lips. It stays in my mouth. – Peter Shor May 10 '17 at 21:37
  • @PeterShor Yes, that's what I meant. Corrected. Pardon my carelessness and thanks for pointing it out. – m.a.a. May 10 '17 at 21:58
  • When I, a native English speaker, place my tongue in preparation for making a ’th’ as in the word that and then try to breathe in- I can’t. Breathing out is easy because the air pushes past the “tongue-tooth” seal. – Jim May 10 '17 at 22:52
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I am Russian but I've done my own research on how to pronounce the two th phonemes.

The th as in thief, thought, think, thanks is really so close to the way snakes make their sound. The tongue merely gently touches the teeth and is close to the bottom of the mouth if not lying on it. Just try to hiss the way snakes do and pronounce the words.

The th as in that, there, the, those, then and so on is really close to [d]. It's just much deeper though. The tongue is somewhere close to the upper teeth and gently touches them. Try to say the word dose by bringing your tongue closer to the upper teeth when that works try changing the sound to a soft [z].

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    Thanks, comrade! Looks like my mistake was in the positioning of my tongue: I kept it in the upper part of my mouth instead of pressing against the bottom, as described here. – shadeware May 11 '17 at 8:08
  • The only difference between /θ/ and /ð/ is the voicing. Just like /s/ and /z/, and /f/ and /v/. When I pronounce them, the tongue is in the middle of the mouth (but there are probably other ways of doing it). – Peter Shor Jun 14 '17 at 12:08

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