One of the most challenging sounds for non-native speakers of English is actually the most common sound in the English language! That sound is The Schwa. The schwa is a very subtle, quiet sound – you may barely have noticed it, but without it, you can never hope to capture the rhythm of English. Any written vowel can be replaced by the schwa if it’s in an unstressed syllable. Examples can be heard in words like allow, or official: rather than saying the strong form of the vowel, it should be pronounced with a quiet ‘uh’ sound.
For non-native speakers this sound can really challenging, because when you’re speaking in your second language you want to be as clear as possible in order to be understood. Using the schwa can feel like mumbling or like you’re not fully pronouncing a word. However, in reality all native speakers use the schwa – even the Queen! And by not using it, you are are much more likely to be misunderstood.
The schwa is key to showing what’s important within sentences. The vowels in small grammar words like ‘to’, ‘as’, ‘at’, ‘can’ ‘was’ etc frequently reduce to schwas, and not using them will make those words stand out too much, and confuse listeners about the overall meaning of what you’re trying to say – the individual words may be clear, but the meaning of the sentence gets lost if you don’t unstress the unimportant words. For example, in a sentence like ‘I was waiting for you’, if you don’t unstress the word ‘was’ by using a schwa, it ends up sounding stressed to native speakers, and changes the meaning of that sentence from something quite neutral to ‘I WAS waiting for you’ which could seem argumentative.
So when practising English pronunciation, learning what not to say, is just as important as learning what to say.
This blog was written by Helen Ashton and Sarah Shepherd, authors of Collins Work on Your Accent coursebook.
About the authors: Helen and Sarah are highly regarded freelance accent and dialect coaches with substantial experience working with students from all around the world. Having trained professionally at London’s influential Central School of Speech and Drama, they now teach both actors and non-native speakers of English how to speak with different accents.