The SCHWA Sound
The schwa sound /ə/ is the secret to NATURAL English pronunciation. It is the most frequently occurring sound in spoken English – you will hear it in almost every sentence! If you want to relax your accent and sound more natural when you speak, you must learn about and learn how to use it as you speak!
In this pronunciation lesson, I will show you how to use the schwa to improve your English pronunciation, reduce your accent and sound more natural when you speak! I’ll also teach you how to recognise the schwa sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
This important sound will help you to
- sound more natural when you speak English
- use common reductions (reduced forms in spoken English)
- reduce your accent (accent reduction)
- use correct syllable & sentence stress, creating the natural rhythm of English
- understand more native English speakers speaking at natural pace
Well hey there! I’m Emma from mmmEnglish! This lesson is all about the schwa. Now it’s just one of the many English sounds but it’s one of the most important ones that you need to understand and use. Particularly if you want to sound more natural when you’re speaking English. So stay tuned!
There are forty-four sounds in English. Some say forty-five. So you might be wondering why is this sound in particular, the schwa, so important? Well firstly, it’s the most common sound in the English language by far. It occurs the most frequently. And that’s why it’s got its own special name, the schwa.
Another thing that’s weird is that there is no schwa sound in the name schwa so it’s not really helpful for remembering it. But it’s also one of the trickiest sounds to understand because any vowel letter or combination of vowel letters could actually be pronounced as a schwa. Because English is not a phonetic language right? You can’t see this sound written in English.
I mean we all know that English spelling is rarely a good guide to improve your pronunciation, right? But the schwa occurs so much in spoken English and it looks completely different every time.
All of these words include the schwa sound in them when they’re spoken and learning to use this sound correctly is really important. It’s going to help you to sound more natural, relaxed and more fluent when you speak English, more like a native English speaker.
So if you’re trying to reduce your accent and to improve your pronunciation, then this sound is a great place to start.
So what does it sound like? The schwa sound is a lazy sound. It’s actually my favourite sound of all the English sounds. It’s my Friday afternoon sound. You know when you’re winding down after a long week and you’re probably already thinking about the weekend and you can’t really be bothered doing much else? So that’s how the schwa sounds.
But how is it written? What letters should you look for? Well that’s quite tricky because all of the vowel letters can be pronounced as a schwa in spoken English.
All of these words have the schwa sound but they’re represented by a different vowel letter each time. For such a lazy sound, it sure does show up in a lot of different places.
And since the schwa sound can be represented by any of the vowel letters, sometimes by consonant letters and sometimes by no letter at all! Being able to recognise the international phonetic symbol for this sound will help you to see when it occurs.
And that schwa symbol is this one ə
Now the schwa sound is always unstressed. It’s the only vowel sound that is never stressed so you need to just relax, just be like the schwa. Relax and take it easy, it’s Friday afternoon.
So to make this sound, first you need to relax everything. This is a really relaxed sound okay? Check your lips, your jaw, your neck, everything needs to be relaxed. Drop the jaw slightly and open your mouth. But keep everything relaxed. Remember, this is the lazy sound. Keeping that in mind, let’s try it together. It’s very, very relaxed.
Make sure that you’re doing this with me so if you need to find a place that’s quiet on your own, go for it.
It’s a guttural sound so you should feel it coming from a little deeper. And with all unstressed vowel sounds, the sound is really fast and it’s also low in pitch, it’s quite flat. You should feel it here and it should be flat.
So why is the schwa sound so common in English? Let’s start from the basics. English has rhythm. It’s made up of stressed and unstressed sounds and words. The stress plays an important part in understanding natural spoken English. Without stress, you’d sound like an English robot and it would be better if you were not a robot.
When words or syllables are unstressed in English, the sound is reduced and the vowel letter is often reduced to a schwa sound. In English, words with more than one syllable have one main stress and other syllables are often unstressed and they often reduce to the schwa sound.
Can you hear the schwa sound in the unstressed syllable there? Let’s look at another example together.
I’ll see you later.
Now some of those syllables were longer than others, weren’t they? And that’s because the important words in the sentence were stressed. The less important words are unstressed and this helps the brain to focus on the important ones, right? The words that you need to understand to to make sense of it.
But it’s difficult to know when to use this sound and if you’re not really into the IPA script, then you need to rely on your ears to identify it. Imitating a native speaker, copying their pronunciation is a really great way to practise the schwa sound correctly.
And actually, I’ve got an imitation lesson that you can try right here. In it, I’ll train you to imitate me while I’m speaking.
So the lazy schwa sound, it’s not too difficult on its own, but recognising it in other English words is.
To help us practise today, you’ll need to take out a pen and some paper because I’m about to tell you some of the many different places that you can find the schwa sound.
Now you can often find the schwa sound in unstressed structure words. So structure words are grammatical words in English sentences. They make the sentence grammatically correct but they don’t really have much meaning.
Words like articles: a, and an or the.
Prepositions: in, on, at
Conjunctions: and, just, some, your
There’s lots and lots of different words that are structure words in English sentences. Really common ones. When these words are stressed, you’ll hear a stronger vowel sound. But when these words are unstressed and spoken naturally in a sentence, they often reduce right down to the schwa sound.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away!
Now there are tons of schwas hiding in those unstressed structure words. But also a couple of schwas in the unstressed syllables as well.
Okay, so what’s next? We’ll look at this list of words:
What do all of these words have in common? Can you tell? Apart from the fact that they all start with the letter A, what else? The first syllable is unstressed. Now these words all start with the schwa sound.
This test is a little harder. What about this group of words? What do they have in common? Make sure you’re listening carefully. Now the schwa sound is somewhere in the middle of all of these words.
Now there’s no letter in there that shows there should be a vowel sound but we can hear it.
So if the schwa sound comes at the start of a word, the middle of a word, well there must be some words that end in a schwa, right? Like extra, visa for example but also..
This is where it gets interesting! Firstly, look at all of the different endings here. They all make the same schwa sound at the end of the word. But the second reason why this is interesting is because this right here is where American accents differ from most Australian and British accents quite significantly.
Most of you already know that I’m Australian and because of this, I use the schwa sound quite a bit more than my American friends. In Australian English pronunciation, usually the -ER at the end of a word will be unstressed. The sound is not pronounced at the end. So in my accent, these words all end in a schwa sound and there are many, many, many, many words that are just like this. These are just a few. They end in -ER but they also have these other endings.
So to pronounce them like me, you really need to focus on relaxing that sound at the end, that last syllable.
Okay here’s a challenge. Where are all of the schwas there? You got it! Those are schwa sounds as well. The schwa sound creates reduced forms when English is spoken naturally so:
‘going to’ becomes ‘gonna’
‘want to’ becomes ‘wanna’
‘got to’ becomes ‘gonna’
‘should have’ becomes ‘shoulda’
So there are so many more examples for this. In fact, I’m going to save them for another lesson because I could go on forever but yes the schwa sound is everywhere in English. It’s the sound that you need to know, that you need to get comfortable with using. So at the very least, you should be able to recognise this symbol so that you can use unstressed syllables and it will help you to pronounce words correctly and it will help you to pronounce words correctly when you see them in the dictionary like these ones. They all have the schwa sound in there and you can see it.
Now time for the bonus section! I’m glad you waited all the way until this point in the lesson. I promised you that if you stuck around until the end of the lesson, you’d get some extra pronunciation practice with me. Are you ready? Let’s go!
Shah: Hi, Emma!
Shah: Hey great lesson today with the schwa sound!
Emma: Thanks! Did you like it?
Shah: Yeah it was awesome. Do you think you could give us a few more examples to practise with? Like maybe, what if you say a sentence and we’ll try and guess where the schwa sounds are?
Are you feeling better today?
Shah: Am I feeling better today? Hang on, is that one of the questions?
Emma: Yeah, are you feeling better today?
Shah: Yeah, actually can you put the words on the screen so we can see them?
Emma: Okay. Here.
Are you feeling better today?
How many schwa sounds can you hear in that sentence? Say it with me, out loud. There’s quite a few. Okay.
Shah: Got it!
Emma: Ready for another one?
Do you want a piece of banana cake?
Emma: Good because that’s what I’m making. How many schwa sounds are there? Nice one! Okay are you ready for another?
I need a knife.
Emma: This knife… where’s the knife that I’m looking for?
It’s under the toaster.
I can’t remember how much butter I need.
Where are the schwas? Say it with me. Alright, one more. Okay I’ve got a tricky one for you!
Can you pass me some more water for the cake mixture?
Emma: Thanks! There’s quite a few schwas there. Okay, is that enough?
Shah: Yeah that’s enough, thanks. That was great!
Emma: Okay good because I’ve got to get this cake into the oven. I’ll leave that one there for you.
If you enjoyed that bonus practice session, then let me know. I’m trying something new here at mmmEnglish and I’d love to hear your feedback. Let me know in the comments or hit the subscribe button right there.
If you want to keep practising with me, then check out these two lessons right here. I’ll see you in the next one!
Links mentioned in the video
3 Reasons You Should Study & Practice English Pronunciation
How To Stay Motivated When Learning English
Does Reading Help You SPEAK English? 📚