The schwa /ə/ is the biggest key to English pronunciation a learner can possess.

It is the invisible star of English speech, but many learners of English pronunciation have never heard of it and do not pronounce it. This article aims to solve that with 4 simple questions…….

1. What is a schwa /ə/?

Schwa is by far the most common vowel sound in English – RP English speakers use it about once every three vowels they pronounce. To put it another way, if you don’t use the schwa sound in your speech, you could be making a pronunciation error 1/3 of the time (if you are aiming for GB English). To illustrate this, listen to and read the passage below, the schwa vowel is written in.
I’d like tə go shopping fər ə pair əf shoes, bət thə shops ə closed becəse thəs ə weathər əlert. əparrəntly lots əf snow is coming in frəm thə Highlənds so thə govərnmənt həv ədvised peopəl tə stay ət home.

2. How is a Schwa produced?

Schwa is a neutral vowel – in order to produce it your tongue should be flat and resting, your lips should be relaxed (not spread or rounded) and your jaw should be relaxed.

3. Where does Schwa appear?

The main problem is that you cannot see it on the written page – it can be spelt with ‘a’ (about), ‘e’ (father), ‘i’ (lentil), ‘o’ (polite) or ‘u’ (column), so unless students are trained to spot it, errors will occur. The key to recognising schwa is stress; schwa is only weak.

Schwa also appears in small words like ‘to’, ‘from’, & ‘are’ in connected speech, which are known as ‘function’ words in pronunciation.

4. How can I include the sound in my speech?

Like all language acquisition, you can learn the schwa in a simple 3 step process:

1. STUDY – Learn how to say it using the correct, neutral mouth position.
2. PRACTISE – Recognise where it is in words and sentences (the script on this page is a good example) and repeat them.
3. PERFORM – Apply it to your own words and sentences.

Repeating this process will gradually incorporate the sound into your speech naturally.

 

By | 2018-01-04T07:46:48+00:00 March 12th, 2014|IPA, Pronunciation, Sounds, Teaching|4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Jane January 2, 2018 at 3:30 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this article!

    I have a question though. I sometimes feel like the shwa sound is pronounced differently depending on the word and the position of the swha sound in the word.
    For example, she first schwa sound in apparent (/əˈpær.ənt/) and the swha sound in humanity (/hjuːˈmæn.ə.ti/) don’t sound the same to me. It is more clear and bright in the firts word, whereas in the second word it get a little closer to an /i/ sound. I’m I wrong on that? Is it just an accent issue?

    And happy new year by the way :)!

    • Joseph Hudson January 4, 2018 at 7:45 am - Reply

      Hi Jane, happy new year!

      The schwa has a very big variance in both its position of the mouth and its length, so you are hearing different versions of the same sound in these examples. In a word like HUMANITY, some speakers will use a schwa in the ending /əti/ and others will use /ɪ/ so /ɪti/ and some speakers will switch between the two (like me).

      • Jane January 5, 2018 at 11:10 pm - Reply

        Oh my god! So I was right…I would have prefer not to 🙁 !
        This absence of rules make it so hard to learn for a non-native speaker…

        Thank your for your answer though. Your blog is great!

  2. Sandra February 22, 2018 at 10:48 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the wonderful article! I’m Spanish and studying a teaching degree. Some days ago we did this schwa exercise in class (In which of these three words used in connecting speech there’s a schwa sound at the end: photograph, expert and…?) The correct answer was PHOTOGRAPH, but my teacher wasn’t able to find a good explanation, and I’m struggling to find the reason why. Could you please help me out? Thanks in advance!

Leave A Comment

Simple Share Buttons