Language learners sometimes struggle with the rhythm and speed of English. Students can often sound robotic or hesitant because they’re having trouble moving from one word to the next in a fluent way. However, just one very important sound can completely transform how you understand the English language. Introducing the ‘schwa’!
Let’s start by looking at five important facts about the schwa:
- The schwa is the most common sound in the English language.
- It is often found in unstressed vowels in multi-syllable words.
- Any vowel sound can be pronounced as a schwa.
- The schwa is represented by the phonetic symbol ə.
- “Grammar” words, such as articles and prepositions, often use the schwa.
So, why do we actually need the schwa? Well, English is a very lazy language. We skip over words or parts of words that we don’t feel are important. Therefore, trying to pronounce every vowel correctly sounds strange and unnatural. To speak like a native, we need to learn where to take short cuts. When we learn how to do this, the rhythm and flow of our speech improves dramatically and we also become better at understanding spoken English.
For example, the noun man has only one syllable and does not use the schwa sound. However, the noun woman has two syllables with the stress on the first. The second syllable, therefore, is pronounced as a schwa. The word about also has two syllables, but this time its stress is on the second one (bout). In this example, the schwa sound is used on the first syllable (a).
Watch these examples and practice making the sound yourself.
Here are some multi-syllable words in English. Read them out loud and decide which syllable has the main stress. Then decide where the schwas are located in each one (there may be more than one for each word). The answers are at the bottom of this page!
Let’s look at some more examples of where we might use the schwa.
- I’m taller than all the other students in my class.
Looking at this short sentence, we can see there are thirteen syllables in total. Can you predict where we might use the schwa sound in this example? Have a look below:
- I’m tall(ə) th(ə)n all th(ə) (ə)th(ə) stud(ə)nts in my class.
In this short sentence, we can see vowels are substituted for the schwa sound six times, on the words taller, than, the, other (twice) and students. So out of thirteen syllables, almost half of them are the schwa sound.
Let’s look at another example, this time using the modal verb have to. Maybe you already use the schwa sound here, but didn’t realise it.
- I have to finish this report by 6pm.
The preposition to does not have a strong vowel sound. It is substituted with the schwa sound instead. For example: have t(ə)
Can you find any other possible schwas in this sentence? Have a look below to find out.
- I have t(ə) finish this r(ə)port by 6pm.
This time we can see it being used twice: on the word to and on the first syllable of report.
Watch this video and try to anticipate where the schwa will be used in the sentences. The best way to do this is to write the sentences out in full, then listen to the audio a few times. Write the schwa symbol underneath the syllables when you hear it.
- Schwa sound = (ə)
- Main syllable stress = bold italicised
Hero Image by KitAy (CC BY 2.0)