The schwa sound is pronounced like this: /ə/
It’s a very short, relaxed sound. Just open your mouth a little, relax everything, and let out a little bit of air: /ə/.
Let’s play a quick game. Look at a sentence I just said:
- In this lesson, you can learn about the most common sound in English.
How many schwa sounds are there in this sentence?
It’s somewhere between zero and five. Have a guess. Go back and listen once more if you want to.
- In this less/ə/n, you c/ə/n learn /ə/bout th/ə/ most comm/ə/n sound in English.
You can see that I used the schwa sound five times in just one short sentence.
So, now you know what the schwa is, but why is it so important?
It’s helpful to know about the schwa sound because recognising it will improve your listening and being able to produce the sound will improve your pronunciation.
But, learning about the schwa can be difficult, because speakers of English use schwas in different places, depending on their accent and depending on which words the speaker chooses to stress.
That means that you’ll hear different people use schwa sounds differently. I might use a schwa in a word, but another native speaker might not.
So you know, I’m from the South of England, and you’ll find that most speakers from the South of England use the schwa in a similar way.
Let’s start by looking at how you can hear and recognise schwa sounds.
1. How Can you Recognise a Schwa?
Here’s the IPA symbol for the schwa sound: /ə/
It looks like an upside-down “e”.
This will help you to understand how to pronounce words when you see them in a dictionary.
It’s helpful to use the schwa symbol when you write down new vocabulary.
Write the schwa symbol under the letter or letters where it appears.
That can help you to recognise the schwa sound in new words, but what if you can’t check the dictionary?
Even if you can’t check a word in the dictionary, you can still find many schwa sounds in new words. Let’s see how.
2. How to Find the Schwa Sound in Words
The spelling of a word doesn’t help you much if you’re trying to work out where the schwa sounds might be.
Why is that?
It’s because schwa sounds don’t really depend on spelling. Also, schwa sounds can be produced by any vowel letter: a, e, i, o or u.
Get more practice with this Oxford Online English lesson: English Sounds and Spelling.
The schwa can also be produced by two or three letters together, like this:
So, the spelling won’t help you to find a schwa, but the stress will; how?
One of the most important things to understand about the schwa is that it only appears in unstressed syllables.
Knowing which syllable is stressed in a word can help you to find where the schwa sounds are.
The schwa can appear at the beginning, middle or end of a word, depending on where the stress is.
You heard before that stress is more useful than spelling if you’re looking for the schwa sounds in a word.
That’s true, but there are some spelling patterns which can help you to find a schwa sound.
One: if a word begins with the letter ‘a’ plus a consonant, the ‘a’ is often pronounced with a schwa sound: about, across, address.
Of course, if the word begins with ‘a’ and ‘a’ is stressed, the ‘a’ will not have a schwa sound. For example: able, actor, artist.
Two: In a British accent, word endings such as –er, – ar, -or, –our, or -ure, are very often pronounced with a schwa sound: teacher, dollar, visitor, colour, culture.
This rule is useful and will work most of the time; however there are some exceptions, such as guitar, insure, metaphor or flour.
Three: in words ending -ion or -ian, the letters ‘ia’ or ‘io’ always have a schwa sound: politician, pronunciation, correction, musician, discussion.
The same is true for words ending -ous, like dangerous, nervous, or fabulous.
There are other spelling patterns, but these are some of the most useful.
Next, let’s see how you can recognise schwa sounds in phrases and sentences.
3. How to Find the Schwa Sound in Phrases and Sentences
In almost every English sentence you hear, there will be at least one schwa sound, and probably more.
Let’s look at a sentence you probably use often:
Which words would normally be stressed in this sentence?
Say it to yourself. Can you work it out?
In this sentence, the stress is on how and you.
The unstressed word in this sentence is are and it is pronounced as a schwa sound.
Listen and try to hear it:
So, how do you know which words are stressed or unstressed?
The unstressed words in a sentence are usually auxiliary words, articles and prepositions.
Words which carry the meaning of a sentence—nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs—are often stressed.
Let’s look at some examples:
In this sentence, the stressed words are like, learning and English and there are no schwas in those words.
The unstressed words are do and you and they will often be pronounced as schwas. Listen:
- D/ə/ y/ə/ like learning English?
However, sometimes you might choose to stress different words in a sentence.
If you hadn’t seen a friend for a long time, you might stress are in this sentence.
If you do this, the schwa sound is replaced with a longer vowel sound.
Look again at the question: Do you like learning English?
If you want to make it clear who you’re asking the question to, you can stress you, which again makes the vowel sound longer:
- D/ə/ y/ʊ:/ like learning English?
Here’s a phrase you might hear a lot in the UK:
The article a has a schwa sound.
However, if someone brought me two cups of tea when I only wanted one, I might stress a, like this:
- I said I wanted /eɪ/ cup of tea.
Recognising the schwa can also help you understand connected speech. Let’s see how:
Most English learners would find it easy to understand this phrase when each word is pronounced clearly.
However, in natural speech, the phrase might sound more like this: /əkʌpəti:/
Here, a cup of becomes ‘a cuppa’, so of is reduced to a schwa.
Let’s practise together. Repeat the phrases after me:
- D/ə/ y/ə/ like learning English?
Being aware of schwas in connected speech can really improve your English listening.
You can see that words and sentences are not pronounced as they’re written. Learning and practising schwa sounds can help you to understand this.
Of course, using schwas and connected speech in your English will also help you to sound more fluent and natural!
Finally, let’s practise pronouncing the schwa in words and sentences.
4. How You Can Pronounce the Schwa Sound
Look at some words and try to find the schwa sounds.
Pause the video, write the words down and mark the stressed syllables. Then say the word and see if you can identify the schwa.
Write the schwa symbol under the vowel.
Ready? Let’s check. Say the words after me:
Next, let’s try some phrases. As before, pause the video, write the phrases down and find the schwa sounds:
- a slice of cake
- a cat and a dog
- an apple and a banana
Ok? Let’s check. Say the phrases after me:
- /ə/ slice /ə/f cake
- /ə/ cat /ə/nd /ə/ dog
- /ə/n apple /ə/nd /ə/ b/ə/nan/ə/
Next, let’s do some full sentences. Again, pause the video, write the sentences down and find the schwa sounds.
- Where are you from?
- What’s your favourite film?
- What time do you get up?
Ready? Now, let’s check. Repeat after me:
- Where /ə/ y/ə/ from?
- What’s y/ə/ fav/ə/r/ə/te film?
- What time d/ə/ y/ə/ get up?
That’s the end of this lesson. I hope you learned something new about how to recognise and pronounce the schwa sound in English.
Thanks for watching!