4 Weak Vowels – English Pronunciation

Anybody who has attended a pronunciation class will know what a ‘schwa’ is: the most common weak vowel of English. There are, in fact, four equally weak vowels in English and they form a very important part of accurate speech. In this paragraph for example, out of 77 vowel sounds, 40 are weak.

That means that over half the vowels we pronounce in English should be unstressed and selected from just 4 vowel sounds! Another way of looking at that is if you do not use weak vowels in your speech, you are mispronouncing at least half of your vowel sounds – proof that this is one of the most important aspects of learning English pronunciation.

In order of frequency the four weak vowels are:
ə ɪ i u

Where do they occur?

All of the weak vowels appear on weak syllables of long words and when function words are weak, examples are below:

Sound / Function Word / Content Word
ə / to / about
ɪ / in / English
i / me / lovely
u / you / particular

How are they pronounced?

Importantly, all of these vowels are mid to close jaw position, shown on the vowel grid on the right. It should also be noted that each of these vowel positions appear in strong vowels (i: / ɪ / ɜ: / u:) so to produce a weak vowel, we are not using any additional areas of the mouth.

What are common mistakes?

The most frequent error by learners of English is in placing and correctly producing the schwa (ə) vowel sound as it is by far the most frequent and unusual of the vowels. Then the difference between /ɪ/ and /i/ tends to cause a lot of problems – it is exactly the same pronunciation issue as with the famous ‘ship’ vs ‘sheep’ vowel pair. The key for learners is to produce two completely unique positions of the mouth. /u/ is rare and does not tend to cause many problems, it is only really found frequently in the function word ‘you’.

How can I master the vowels?

Firstly, recognise where they appear in words and sentences.
Secondly, master their pronunciation, /ə/ /ɪ/ and /i/ are challenging for most English learners.
Thirdly, adopt them naturally into speech, this takes lots of practice!
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Weak Vowel Exercise

Find all the weak vowels in the following sentences (you can listen to them below):

1. Is it going to rain in the morning? ɪ ɪ ə ɪ ə
2. Are you having a party this weekend?
3. When would it be a good time to visit?
4. Have there been any signs of a repeat?
5. Did you invite them to your wedding?
6. I’m thinking of some time off.
7. We should have been at home by now.
8. It was such a good film.
9. War and Peace will be read in the thirtieth century.
10. He would like fish and chips if it’s on the menu.