Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lessons post. This week we are looking at the Schwa. Our Lunchtime Lessons are free Online English classes where we look at areas of English which are often difficult for students.
If you didn’t manage to join us for our live session, you can catch up with the highlights of the class below. If you’d like to join our live session for the chance to ask the teacher questions, you can book your place directly on our website. These classes are 100% free and are on Tuesdays at 12pm.
What is the Schwa?
The Schwa is the most common vowel sound in the English language. So, it’s quite obvious why it’s such an important sound. The Schwa is what we call a neutral vowel. That means you’re not doing anything with your mouth to produce the sound. Think of the Schwa as not being stressed, it’s cool and relaxed. We use the Schwa on unstressed syllables. This means the Schwa is a weak vowel. As other languages mostly work with strong vowels it’s important to understand that English is different. Weak vowels are very common in English, which makes it very important that you are able to use and hear them. It is the key to producing and understanding English well. Another reason why the Schwa is so important is because of its influence on the rhythm of English. Today we’re looking at its impact on individual words, also known as word stress. In another session we’ll be looking at its impact on full sentences.
How to produce the Schwa
If we want to form the Schwa, keep in mind that it’s a neutral vowel and it shouldn’t take you any effort to produce it. Nothing in your mouth should make a movement. Your lips, jaw and tongue aren’t moving. They just relax.
A good way to think of what the Schwa should sound like is the noise you make when someone asks you a really difficult question. Or think of the sound you make when you smell on something really disgusting. Imagine milk that’s been left outside for four days in the sun. The sound you’ll make in these situations is the Schwa. But you can also channel your inner Homer Simpson. Think of the sound Homer makes when he looks at a donut. These three easy ways should help you to produce the Schwa and show that it really is a neutral vowel as it doesn’t take any effort to produce it.
The Schwa and word stress
Let’s think about the Schwa in relation to word stress. I’d like to remind you that word stress is very important as it helps us to pronounce correctly and also to understand correctly. First of all, we need to think about how many syllables a word has and where the main stress is. Let’s take the word comfortable. It has 3 syllables and the main stress is on the first one. The rest of the word is unstressed and the other vowels there are usually a Schwa sound.
I have here some more example words for you. In the first step mark the syllables and the main stress. And in the second step look at the unstressed syllables and decide which one have a Schwa sound. Not every unstressed syllable is a Schwa, but it is very common.
What happens if we don’t use the Schwa? If we only use strong vowels, the word stress changes. Have a listen in the video to how all the example words would sound when we don’t use the Schwa for unstressed syllables. It is completely different and hard to understand. And this is exactly why the Schwa is so important. Stress and sentence stress are so integral to how we speak English. If you change the stress of a word, no one will understand you. I’m sure you have all had that experience before. You say a word and you know it is correct in English, but people don’t understand you. It’s an incredibly frustrating experience. Most times when that happens, it’s because you’re not applying the Schwa. You’re using a strong vowel and you change the stress of the word.
Word stress patterns
I know it can be quite hard to know when a syllable is stressed or unstressed and when we have to use the Schwa. But, as so often happens in English, there are some patterns we can follow. For example, suffixes in English are never stressed. This is completely different to Italian or Spanish were suffixes usually are stressed. So, in English, we very often use the Schwa when we’re pronouncing a suffix and this is a nice pronunciation pattern that can help you make sure that you’re properly pronouncing words.
Let’s have a look at some examples. There are always three words with the same suffix. Have a think, how would you pronounce each suffix? Say the examples out loud and make sure the suffix in each group sounds the same. It’s important to say them out loud as sounds can be different in your head. You can also watch the video and repeat the words after Claire.
I’d like to point out that people very often make a mistake with the suffix -less. They think of the adjective less, where it has a strong vowel but as a suffix it has a Schwa. So please watch out for this. The same thing happens with the suffix -ful. If it’s the adjective full we use a strong vowel but when it’s a suffix it’s with a Schwa.
I also want to mention that in the last example with the suffix -able we don’t use a Schwa. It’s the /ɪ/ sound we saw before, which is very similar to the Schwa. But you shouldn’t worry too much about that difference. It’s more important that you produce a weak sound.
Another useful pattern is that when we speak quickly we can omit the Schwa sound if we have another vowel in the word. Have a look at those words and find the Schwa.
It is very important to use the Schwa correctly. Pronunciation is not only important for your speaking, it will also improve your listening skills. Remember: If you can produce a sound, you can hear a sound! If your able to produce the Schwa correctly it will help you understand people who are speaking quickly.
Use a dictionary
If you’re struggling to find out if a word has a Schwa or where the stress is, you can use a dictionary. We’ll be working with the Longman dictionary. Let’s take the word photograph. Firstly, it shows you how many syllables the word has. It is divided with dots. Pho-to-graph, means it has 3 syllables. If you look at the phonemic transcript, look out for the apostrophe ‘. It shows you were the main stress is. In our case it’s on the first syllable. The phonemic transcription also shows you if and where the word has a Schwa, you simply need to look for its symbol /ə/. By clicking on the speaker, you can also listen to the word and repeat after it. Another great online dictionary is Wordreference. You can pick different accents such as Scottish, Irish and Jamaican.
To finish off today’s lesson I have a little game for you. We need to cross the river by jumping from stone to stone. You can jump sideways, up, diagonally or jump over a stone. You can only jump on stones with words which have the word stress on the first syllable. Let’s look at the first row – which word is stressed on the first syllable? Correct, regret, answer, belong or invent? Leave us a comment and tell us if you could cross the river.