If you want to speak clear, natural English, and improve your listening comprehension, you need to be acquainted with Schwa,  the most common English vowel sound. It looks and sounds like this:

the schwa symbol


Pronunciation of schwa


Schwa is present in almost all words in English with 2 or more syllables. The key thing to remember is that this all-important weak vowel sound replaces any vowel sound letter on the unstressed syllable of a multi-syllabic word. If you hear Schwa, you can be sure that you’re hearing a single word with more than one syllable. If you hear two stressed syllables for example, it is most likely that we’re referring to two words.  For instance, the word ‘human’ (HU-man) has 2 syllables with the stress on the first syllable. The A on the second weak syllable sounds as Schwa:



If both syllable were  stressed, you might think that it’s the name of a person: HUGH MANN


Any vowel can sound as Schwa


A = ə


Chocolate: As with many 3 other syllable words, the middle Schwa disappears altogether, while the final A is weakened



Kansas: The Schwa on the weak syllable makes it clear that it is one word.



Important: Apart from the final syllable schwa sound, the final T on a word often becomes a glottal stop. Also, the ‘i’ on the unstressed  first syllable keeps its sound.



Alone: Schwa is on the first syllable here.



Local:  Many learners of English place the stress on both syllables on this word, which typically leads to misunderstandings.



E = ə


Eliza   Here, the first and last syllable are heard as Schwa



Siren Schwa is a very relaxed sound and is often hard to hear



Ferocious Here the first syllable is unstressed. The final syllable with -IOU is also Schwa



Problem A typical pronunciation mistake is to place too much stress on the final syllable


I = ə

Hampshire: As with many place names ending in -SHIRE, it is said as Schwa



Villain: Many learners of English are surprised to find out that the combination of –ai is sounded as Schwa



Civil:  The i sound in the weak syllable here sounds as schwa, but in some words stays as /i/ as in ‘happy’



Council: Here the I in the weak syllable is Schwa



O = ə


Mirror: It is very common for non-native speakers of English to pronounce the unstressed O in its strong form.



Common: If you’re not prepared to hear Schwa replacing the O letter, you might not understand the word.



Major:  This word is typically hard to understand and hard to pronounce.



London: This place name is commonly mispronounced. Apart from the final Schwa, notice that the first syllable is said with a short A.



U = ə


Circus: Now you can safely ask for directions to Piccadilly Circus without being misunderstood!



Focus This is one of the most commonly mispronounced words in English because of the U in the weak syllable becoming Schwa.



Arthur: If you don’t expect the Schwa here, you might not understand this name when pronounced correctly.



Album, Second language English speakers get used to seeing the U in writing and pronounce it as the letter.



Minimum The middle weak syllable stays as /i/, with the final U becoming Schwa





As you can see, Schwa is extremely important if you want to speak English clearly and naturally  and better understand native speakers. The graph below clearly illustrates that it is by far the  most common vowel sound in English,  and is used in many words where you wouldn’t expect to hear it.


Frequency of Schwa


For more practise you can download our fun new app on iOS or Android.  Also, if you want to know some fun fact about schwa, check out this article. In the meantime, here’s a word of advice to all you English learners:


keep calm and try the schwa