The “Schwa” sound in English is not what you would think. It has nothing to do with how different dialects of English pronounce words like “swimming” or “thwart”. The “Schwa” pronunciation is the shortest sound in English and is a technique on how to stress certain letters and syllables in a word.
There are five main vowels in the English language, but pronouncing them in certain words can differ. Take “a” for example. The word “Data” in American English has both a long “a” and a short “a”. When you speak to native English speakers, this is something that comes naturally to them without having to memorize which pronunciation is used in certain words. In this blog, we’ll give you some tips and tricks to help you sound native to English when speaking. The most common way to do this is through the “Schwa” pronunciation.
This may seem easy to most, but as you speak in conversation, it’s even easier to forget. Mispronouncing words in English can be a huge and sometimes funny mistake. Words can be very similar in English so getting the vowels right is a must.
The Schwa sound is everywhere in English. It is used one in every three vowels. Because it is so common, not getting this right can affect your overall speaking skills. Also, looking at it from the opposite view, not fully knowing the pronunciations can also affect your own understanding and listening skills. When having a conversation, you may misunderstand an instruction in work or get mixed up in group conversations.
Not pronouncing the “Schwa” sound while talking can also break the flow of the conversation. It is so effortless to say, and you can also sometimes fit two syllables into the same ”beat”. This means that if you don’t use it, the melody of the conversation won’t be right.
This is simply by pronouncing the vowels within words as “uh”. It is really short and seriously unstressed when speaking, but makes the world of difference in your speaking skills. It is so common that teachers in English lessons will correct this in one-to-one lessons the most.
Most English words require a lot of effort and rolling of the tongues. However, to pronounce “uh”, the best way to do this is with minimal effort. Relax your muscles and flatten your tongue. You’ll see exaggerated versions of this in comedic movies where a character may be puzzled. Watch this short video on how to pronounce “uh”.
A word that uses this sound truly is “butter”. The way that you pronounce the “u” in butter is the schwa sound and is used within words that contain a, e, i, o, and u.
We’ve already stressed how common this sound is in the English language, so unfortunately we won’t able to list them all! (Even though, we’d love to for our readers!). However, let’s first take one example in detail and then give you a few extras for each of the five vowels.
A great word to practice this with is “banana”. In English, we do not pronounce this like Silento in the song “Watch me whip. Watch me nae-nae”. (yes, we’re dancing too now..sorry!). So, it is not ba-nae-nae, but native English speakers pronounce this buh-nan-nuh. We can see here that we have three “a”s in the word, but only two of them use the Schwa sound. On behalf of the English language, we apologize!
Once you have this part down, let’s have a look at other words with this pronunciation. The following are examples for each vowel:
This may all seem a little random and like we have just picked random words based on how lazy we’d like to pronounce them. However, there is some method to the madness.
The first rule is that the schwa sound can be the only unstressed syllable in the word. The schwa goes with the syllabic consonants L, M, N, and R. That means when you have a syllable with a schwa followed by one of these consonants, you don’t need to make the schwa. It gets absorbed by the next sound. For example, the word ‘father’: th-rr, th-rr. Just go from the TH sound right into the R sound without trying to make a separate schwa. Father, -ther.
The Schwa syllables usually appear in content or function words. Content words convey the message of the sentence and can be in the form of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. These are the words in sentences that carry the most meaning when we speak. For example, ‘We flew over the mountains at dawn’. Mountains is pronounced “mount-tuhns” and dawn is pronounced “duhwn”. This sentence also contains a function word. Function words won’t make much sense on their own, but make sense of the sentence. They link the sentences together. Can you guess which word is the function word? Yes, it’s “the”. Function words are always unstressed and therefore contain the schwa sound. You’ll always pronounce “the” as “thuh”.
The Schwa sound may seem insignificant. It’s known as the lazy vowel, but we can’t be lazy when it comes to remembering it! If this is the only lesson that you learn this week in your journey to becoming fluent, then that is a great feat!
Practice your pronunciations in front of the mirror with our examples above and always listen to your teacher’s corrections, as you can be assured that it will more than likely have to do with the Schwa sound.
If you are practicing your speaking and pronunciation skills for a speech or presentation in work, we suggest booking in a Business English Class. You can have a one-to-one lesson with one of our teachers, and get that monologue up to an A standard. Best of luck!