April 7, 2002 - Lida Baker: Pronouncing 'th'
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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER -- help for English learners who have trouble pronouncing words with the letters t-h.
RS: Our friend Lida Baker joins us with a pronunciation lesson. She writes textbooks for English learners, and teaches at the American Language Center at the University of California at Los Angeles.
AA: Lida Baker says the problem is that few other languages have the sound -- actually, the two sounds -- that we write in English with the letters t-h.
BAKER: "There's t-h like in the word 'thing' and then there's the t-h sound that you have in a word like 'brother.' And because it doesn't exist in a person's language, what they tend to do is to substitute a sound that they do have in their language.
"So a word like 'thing,' a French speaker might pronounce it as 'sing.' They'll put an 's' there because they don't have a t-h sound in their language, so they may not be aware that the t-h exists. And even if they do, they don't know what to do with their mouth in order to produce that sound, so they simply substitute something that they're familiar with.
"Other people might pronounce it as 'ting.' And in the same manner, the word 'brother,' speakers of some languages pronounce it as 'bruzzer,' with a 'z' sound, and other people pronounce it 'brudder,' with a 'd' there in the middle."
RS: Now let's get back to the two different t-h sounds. With the example of "brother," the vocal cords vibrate ... brother. When the example of "thing," there's no vibration ... thing.
AA: Our lesson continues, as Lida Baker describes the basic way to form a t-h sound.
BAKER: "It involves putting the tongue between the teeth and then inhaling and blowing air out. And of course you have to do all these things at the same time, so it takes a little bit of practice."
AA: "I'm trying to do it myself and I can't do it!"
BAKER: "Well, step one, Avi, put your tongue between your teeth, take a deep breath and now blow."
AA: [Blowing sound]
BAKER: "And say 'thing.'"
BAKER: "Yes. And t-h is easy because you can actually see that the tip of the tongue protrudes between the teeth."
AA: And once her students can see for themselves -- it helps that she walks around with a mirror -- she then moves on to teaching "sound discrimination."
BAKER: "I might write the word 'sing' -- s-i-n-g -- and the word 'thing' -- t-h-i-n-g -- on the board, and under the word 'sing' I'll write the number one, and under the word 'thing' I'll write the number two. And then I'll start saying those words, and the students have to -- if they hear me say 'sing' they have to hold up one finger and if they hear may say 'thing' they have to hold up two fingers.
"So modeling the sound, learning how to put one's mouth in the proper position, doing sound discrimination exercises, to make sure you can hear the difference between two sounds, and finally practicing the sound in context, in meaningful ways, such as a game or a dialogue or a discussion -- those are the four parts of a pronunciation lesson."
RS: "And telling the students ... or I should say, and encouraging the students that this is a very difficult task, and that with practice -- hopefully -- they can approximate sounding like an American."
BAKER: "With time."
RS: "With time."
BAKER: "Because don't forget that when people are learning a language, what's their number one priority?" RS: "Communication."
BAKER: "Exactly, communication. So they're concerned with vocabulary, they're concerned with choosing the right word. Pronunciation tends to be almost the last priority."
AA: "Which, ironically, is what native speakers might end up judging them on, is whether they can understand how they're pronouncing words." BAKER: "Well, it's very ironic, because pronunciation is the very first thing that people notice about you."
RS: So what to do? Lida Baker tells her students at the American Language Center in Los Angeles to look in a mirror and -- you guessed it -- practice, practice, practice.
AA: Need help practicing your American English? Write us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
RS: And our new Web site address is www.voanews.com/wordmaster. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.