The Schwa and clear, natural English - Wannalisn

The Schwa and clear, natural English

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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:

Human

 

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

CHOC(o)late

 

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

KANsas

 

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.

imPORtant

 

Alone: Schwa is on the first syllable here.

aLONE

 

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

LOcal

 

E = ə

 

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

eLIZa

 

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

SIren

 

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

feROcious

 

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

PROBlem

I = ə

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

HAMPshire

 

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

VILlain

 

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

CIVil

 

Council: Here the I in the weak syllable is Schwa

COUNcil

 

O = ə

 

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

MIRror

 

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

COMmon

 

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

MAjor

 

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

LONdon

 

U = ə

 

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

CIRcus

 

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

FOcus

 

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

ARthur

 

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

ALbum

 

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

 

MINimum

 

 

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

 

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