When I started to learn Czech (I’m still learning, albeit very slowly!) I had to learn some new letters and with them some new sounds. Č was not too difficult, neither was Š or even Ž. You know where this is going right? But when it came to Ř it was another story.
I can remember just after our first daughter Daisy was born, practising the sound over and over while she looked at me from her cot as though I was a crazy person. (She’d thank me now though as her pronunciation is perfect!) Indeed it took me many, many months to get something sounding close just from listening to you native speakers. I was fortunate enough to have my future wife and all her Czech friends to help me, though somehow I still wasn’t able to get my tongue around it. “It’s like a rolling R with a Ž at the same time“ they’d say. Rolling Rs is difficult enough for many British people, the Scottish excepted of courrrse.
So it wasn’t until a visit to Prague a few months before we moved lock, stock and barrel (idiom explained at the end) to the Czech Republic that Radka’s sister showed me how it should be done. Letting me look closely at her mouth (she’s very trusting!) as she curled her tongue behind her teeth, rolled the R and blew air from her windpipe. This was the moment I finally understood and made the leap from something that sounded like a sneeze to something much more pronounced and close to what I was looking for. Now I am told I have a super sounding Ř. Test me on Křivoklát, křižíkova and řeřicha! Ok maybe not perfect but better than a Slovak’s! Sorry Ivana 😉 That said I still have trouble with pronouncing a simple rolled R when it follows a T or D for example. That makes it pretty hard for me to pronounce my own sister in law’s name Petra.So why am I telling you this?I’m telling you this because I want you to know that I understand how hard it can be to master a new sound that is not of your native tongue. I’m talking here about TH. Many of you have a problem with this sound as it doesn’t exist in Czech. Neither does our English J (as in juice) but you can easily compensate for it with a DŽ. However there is no way to make the TH sound using other Czech letters so I’m afaid you will just have to learn it.
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Here is my best explanation of how to position the various bits of your mouth in order to make a good attempt at it and below you will see a link to a video with a close up of my mouth (I apologize!).
But first are you aware that there are two TH sounds? One we call a voiced TH and the other unvoiced or voiceless. Let’s start with this unvoiced sound as in Thursday, a word which I know causes considerable discomfort and embarrassment as well as missed meetings and dates down the pan. And believe me I know what it’s like because I had to learn how to put five consonants in a row when I learnt čtvrtek. In English we like to use a vowel every now and again!
- a) placing the tip of your tongue behind your slightly parted teeth. (If you put your finger to your teeth you should just feel your tongue between the gap.)
- b) simply blowing air through the gap in your teeth over your tongue.
Some explanations will tell you to stick your tongue out a bit between your teeth. While you do get an almost identical sound I think keeping your tongue back a bit makes the sound much cleaner and clearer.
Right, now you have mastered the unvoiced sound (Thursday, think, thought) you can move onto the voiced sound as in The, This, These, Those. The instructions for this sound are exactly the same as for the unvoiced sound but with one addition. You are also going to use your vocal chords/voicebox to produce a sound. That sound is the same as when you can’t think what to say and you ERRR as we say in English. For example “I don’t know anything about Van Gogh, eerrrr, maybe he was French? Eerrrr, I really don’t know.” So follow theses instructions as follows:
- a) place the tip of your tongue behind your slightly parted teeth.
- b) make the eerrrrr sound and continue making it as you start to…
- c) blow air through the gap in your teeth over your tongue.
And there you have it. The perfect TH sound, both voiced and unvoiced. Congratulations. I can’t wait to here the improvement the next time we talk. Here are the two idioms I used explained.
lock, stock, and barrel
down the pan
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