The "th" Sound for European Portuguese Speakers

Olá European Portuguese speakers!  

Happy MoTHer's Day- observed today in the U.S. 12.05.19

All About Accents is developing a series of “common difficult sounds” in American English for speakers of different language backgrounds.  Given my special connection with Portugal, I would like to start the series focused on accent tips for European Portuguese speakers!  In the series, I will present 1 sound in American English that is commonly troublesome for Portuguese speakers, explain the sound, and give some examples of the sound in words to increase your awareness of the sound.  Each post will focus on one sound, and will be accompanied with a video presentation in the future. The sound of this presentation is “th,” a sound that is difficult for many speakers around the world. The video below provides a background of why "th" is commonly difficult, and a brief tutorial for how to feel the sound on your own system. Under the video is a written guide for "th"

The sound errors common to European Portuguese speakers in English are based on the sound “rules” of European Portuguese.  Please note that with any sound guide, not all errors may apply to you as a speaker. There are many factors that affect accent, such as age you began learning English, frequency of exposure to English speaking opportunities, amount of time spent in an English speaking country, etc.  Use the guide to increase your own awareness of your American English accent.

When learning a non-native language, you probably notice that there are sound errors made by similar groups of native language speakers.  For example, European Portuguese native speakers may have similar accents in English, as well as speakers of other native languages such as Spanish, German, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. The reason for this phenomenon is that we apply our native language “sound rules” and “sound patterns” to the new language that we are learning.   The same is true for native English speakers learning European Portuguese- there are sound rules in English that native speakers naturally say when trying to speak European Portuguese.

Sound #1


“th” is such a common sound error in English for speakers from many language backgrounds (not just European Portuguese), because it is a sound that does not exist in many languages in the world.  In addition, children learning American English as a native language acquire this sound at a later age of development, and therefore it is normal to hear young children pronounce “th” as “t” or “d.”  Portuguese speakers typically replace “th” sounds in English with “t” or “d.” Try saying the word “think” out loud. Does the air sound like it is flowing, or does the first sound appear more like a “t.”  Does “thank” sound like “tank?” “Mother” like “mudder?”

“th” is actually not 1 sound, there are technically two “th” sounds in English, and it is important to learn the distinction.  It is not natural or common to know the distinction unless you study linguistics, phonology, or take accent lessons as a student, and most native English speakers probably would not know that there are 2 “th” sounds.  

We distinguish the two “th” sounds by whether or not your vocal folds are vibrating in your throat (the larynx).   In the words teeth and think the “th” is “voiceless” because the vocal cords are not vibrating.  In the words though, mother, and the, the “th” is “voiced” because the vocal cords are vibrating.  For those interested in International Phonetic Alphabet symbols (IPA), the voiceless “th” is represented as /θ/ and the voiced “th” is represented as /ð/.  

A great way to practice the “th” sound is in front of a mirror, because this sound is visual.  Place your tongue between your teeth and hold a “th” sound. You should feel the air continually flowing..  Try to “see” your tongue tip in the mirror and feel air flowing with your hand placed in front of your mouth.  

If you would like to practice the “th” sound or other American English accent concerns in words, sentences, and conversation, it is definitely recommended to contact a trained accent coach with your concerns and goals.  

Enjoy speaking English with confidence, and your language journey!

Leann Rhoades, M.S. CCC-SLP

Accent Coach/ Speech Language Pathologist

All About Accents



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