The “th” or /ð/ and /θ/ sounds don’t exist in German or many other languages. Notoriously difficult to produce, to make them you have to find the right spot with your tongue on your front teeth. It takes a lot of practice and can take many months or even years to perfect.
The question is: Is it worth it?
Research into English as a lingua franca – (ELF) the use of the English Language as a global means of communication between different non-native speakers – has led to the development of the lingua franca core*. This is a list of English features that have to be correct in order for people to understand each other and includes most consonants. You cannot replace one consonant with another in a word in English and expect it to be understood; parrots and carrots, for example, are totally different things. The “th” or /ð/ and /θ/ sounds, however, are outside of this core and therefore unessential. Evidence shows that people speaking English can understand each other fine without them.
Another reason not to learn the “th” is that around the world, many nations of English speakers don’t use the /ð/ or /θ/ sounds, for example the 1.393 billion people of India, and the people of Ireland. In these countries the “th” sounds are replaced with /t/ or /d/ sounds.
When faced with these facts it would seem to be a waste of time to focus on these sounds but talking to my students I’ve realised that for many of them not being able to pronounce the “th” is a source of anxiety and even embarrassment. It seems that what is going on here is that it’s not that the missing sound creates a lack of communication, but it means they speak a kind of English that they see as being not good enough.
Is it that the American and British “Englishes” are seen by many as “the only way” to speak English properly even though it is spoken all over the world? When I started teaching back in 2001, there were language schools that would only take on “native speakers” and this is still true to some extent today.
Not all native speakers are “native speakers” according to these schools. Although as well as Anglo-American teachers, South Africans and Australians are welcome to teach there, other English native speaking teachers from places such as India or Africa are usually not. To hammer the point home, many schools employing only “native English teachers” have names like, “The Cambridge Institute” and “The Wall Street Institute” and you don’t find schools called “Montego Bay English” or “The Lagos Institute”.
By excluding teachers with non-Anglo-American and non-native accents and advertising using British or American symbols, such as Big Ben or the Union Jack (Flag), these schools are putting out the message that correct English, the kind you learn at their amazing language school, belongs to the people of a few countries and other accents are not good enough to be taught.
Why English schools have found promoting Anglo-American accents and ignoring others preferable, is open to speculation. Is it something to do with public bias towards the countries themselves? Who knows?
Anyway, the result of this bias has been that a lot of people believe that to speak English “right” you have to use English or American pronunciation. If you’re in a global English environment speaking with people from all over the world you’ll probably find people much more open to accent variations, but, if not, you’ve got to ask yourself how strong this, often unconscious, bias towards sounds like the “th” is in your working environment.
So, to answer the question “Do I have to learn how to say the “th” the answer is, it’s up to you and your situation!
I use the Lingua Franca Core to show me which elements of English pronunciation are essential to communication and which ones help us to sound more “acceptable” in certain situations. It’s up to my students to decide if sounding “English” is important to them in their situation. If it is, we cover non core elements, such as the /ð/ or /θ/ (“th”) sounds, and if it’s not we can save time and just focusing on the parts needed to speak clearly.
I’d be interested to hear about whether the “th” is important to you and why, so let me know in the comments. If you’d like to know how I can help you with your English pronunciation you can visit my homepage www.sw-english.com (In German, English coming…) or send me an email to email@example.com. At the time of writing I’m offering a free online pronunciation test, review and action plan. Give it a go!
Have a great day!
*See Jenkins, J. 2003. “Community, Currency and the Lingua Franca Core” TESOL Spain
Newsletter. Vol 26, Spring 2003.