Episode Transcript

Hey everyone, it's Hadar. Thank you so much for joining me. Today we are going to talk about the schwa. We're going to talk about what is the schwa, how to pronounce it, and why it is so important. Then we're going to talk about why it is so freaking hard for non-native speakers of English to understand how to use the schwa, and to use it consistently. Afterwards, I'm going to give you a few tips on how to identify when to use the schwa, and how to use it. And finally, we are going to practice it together in words.

Now, if you've been following me for a while, you know I always talk about the schwa. I think I have the schwa obsession – schwasession. And maybe you know everything that you need to know about the schwa, but I really wanted to make this video for people who are new to my channel, that need a clear and concise explanation about the schwa. So this is why I'm creating this video. And I wanted it to be the clearest explanation on YouTube. Now, I know it's very ambitious, but if we do not have ambition, what do we have in life?

So, if you're new to my channel, by the way, my name is Hadar. I'm a speech and fluency coach. And I'm here to help you speak English with clarity, confidence, and freedom. I'm a non-native speaker of English myself. And if you want to find out more about me and how I can help you, then go to my website at hadarshemesh.com, or come and follow me on Instagram at @hadar.accentsway. Okay. Are you ready for the schwa? Because I am. Let's get started.

Let's begin with the definition of the schwa. The schwa is the most neutral vowel sound in English. And to produce it, you basically need to do nothing. You want to relax your jaw, relax your lips, relax your tongue, and release a very short, quick sound: ‘uh'

That's it, do it again with me. ‘uh'. If you're struggling with the pronunciation or you're not sure if it's the right pronunciation, try to pronounce the consonant cluster ‘KG'. So it's a K and a G – KG. Try to connect them together. ‘KG'. That sound in the middle, between the K and the G is the schwa. It's a very, very small, tiny, sweet little sound that exists in almost every other word in English.

Yes. The schwa is the most frequent vowel sound in American English, and it exists in almost every other word in English, especially in words with two syllables and more. It is not a traditional conventional vowel sound. No, the schwa, the schwa has its own style. Because it's a reduced vowel sound, and it only appears in unstressed syllables. And I'm going to come back to it in a minute.

But again, remember that it only appears in unstressed syllables. So basically, it's not a real vowel, but a reduction of all the other vowels in English, if they appear in unstressed syllables. And we're going to talk about how do identify those unstressed syllables in a second, but I just need you to understand just that. And this is why it's so freaking confusing.

Because the schwa doesn't have a specific spelling pattern, like the ‘a' as in ‘cat', for example. The ‘a' as in ‘cat' usually appears when the word is spelled with the letter A. Now, not every time you see the A letter it means that it's the ‘a' sound. But when you hear the ‘a' sound, it would usually have the A in it. Because the schwa can be represented with any vowel letter there is.

For example, A as in ‘about', O as in ‘melody', I as in ‘holiday', U as in ‘focus', and E as in ‘manager'. And it's not only that, but it could also be a combination of vowel letters. Like ‘station', for example. So, we can't look at the word and say, “Oh, this is a schwa because of the spelling”. And by the way, this is what causes so many spelling challenges for both native and non-native speakers. Because what you hear is not what you read.

Okay. So we established that the schwa is a neutral vowel sound, and this is how it sounds – ‘uh'. We also agreed that it's not a regular vowel letter, but a reduction of a vowel. It's a reduced vowel, and it only appears in unstressed syllables. And we also agreed that the schwa doesn't have a specific spelling pattern that we can follow.

Now, because there isn't a consistent spelling pattern, what happens is that when people don't recognize the schwa or don't know that there should be a schwa in a certain place, then what they do is that they pronounce the vowel sound that is associated with a vowel letter. For example, ‘mel[o]dy', and ‘hol[i]day', and ‘stat[io]n'. Instead of ‘mel[ə]dy', ‘hol[ə]day', and ‘stat[ə]n'. All have the same sound – the schwa sound.

Now, question is: if you don't use the schwa on a regular basis, and if this is the first time you are hearing about the schwa, you're probably not using the schwa. Does that make you a bad English speaker? Does that mean that your pronunciation is awful? Absolutely not. And you know what? It doesn't even mean that you are unclear.

Because not using the schwa doesn't necessarily take away from your clarity. Think about it. ‘med[i]c[i]ne' instead of ‘med[ə]c[ə]ne'. ‘med[i]c[i]ne'. The word is still clear. If you know what the primary stress is, if you know how to pronounce the vowel sounds in other positions, then you are still going to be 100% clear.

‘mel[o]dy' versus ‘mel[ə]dy' – still clear. And clarity is the most important thing, as long as you are understood, and that you are clear about what you need to say and how to say it. Okay. So, if you are wondering whether or not the schwa sound is going to make you a lot clearer, the answer is ‘no'. Because putting short vowel sounds instead of the schwa is not something that is going to make you sound unclear.

However, the schwa can definitely help with a following. First – listening skills. When you hear the schwa and you're aware of the schwa, it's much easier to make sense of a certain word or a certain phrase. Because the schwa plays a significant role when it comes to phrases, not just to words. So, it really helps with listening and knowing what it is that you're listening. So it doesn't sound like this vague sound that you have no idea what it is. But knowing what the schwa is and being able to hear it and to perceive it on a regular basis, can help improve your confidence while listening to other people.

Second, it really helps with the pronunciation of very long words. Let's face it – there are a lot of words in English that are very long. And sometimes it's hard, and it feels like you're stumbling upon the pronunciation of a word. And knowing how to use the schwa can definitely help with that. Because you're investing less energy in pronouncing every single syllable in the word.

It also helps you deliver your message with clarity, and I'm going to talk about that in a little bit. Because it's not only that we reduce certain syllables inside words, we also reduce words inside phrases, words that are a little less important. Those words, called function words, are reduced to a schwa.

For example, instead of saying “for example”, I said “fər example”. I turned the ‘or' in the word “for” into a schwa – ‘fər', to allow other words to stick out: ‘example'. “for example”. So, knowing and understanding the schwa is not only important for the pronunciation of specific words, especially long words, it's really helpful when it comes to delivering a clear message.

And finally, if we want to get fancy, starting to incorporate the schwa more consistently in words and phrases can help your speech sound more natural, because you'll be investing less energy in pronouncing vowels that don't actually exist. And the schwa is also very soft and mellow and short, and it can definitely help your rhythm in English. And this is why I'm making the video. And this is why I'm so incredibly passionate about the schwa sound.

And now let's talk about when and how to use the schwa. When we look at a word, we first see that it's divided into syllables. Syllables are the smallest unit within the word. Now, if this is something that is challenging for you, I talk about syllables and primary stress in another video that I'm going to be happy to link in the description below, if you still need to work on that as well.

So, a word is divided into sy-lla-bles. A syllable is a small unit within the word, and usually has one vowel sound. Every word has one and only one primary stress, that's the one syllable that sticks out the most. ‘Amazing'. ‘a-MEY- that's the primary stress – zing'. ‘a-MEY-zing'. ‘situation'. ‘si-tu-WEY-shin' – WEY is the primary stress.

So, when we look at a word, we know that one syllable is the primary stress. That's the first and most important thing that we need to know about a word. Seriously. And then, the rest of the syllables either receive a secondary stress or a weak stress – the schwa. A secondary stress is a pure vowel sound, we don't reduce it whatsoever. So we pronounce the vowel fully.

Now, I don't think I need to teach you something about it because I want you to know that this would be your default pronunciation, okay? Your default pronunciation is to pronounce the full vowel. Ideally, it's going to be aligned with the actual vowel in English, but sometimes we modify the vowel a little bit to bring it closer to the vowels that exist in your language.

So, we want to know how to pronounce the specific vowels, but what I'm trying to say – this is not a lesson about vowels – what I'm trying to say is that once you identify the primary stress, some of the syllables are going to be pronounced with full vowels, and some syllables are going to be reduced to a schwa.

For example, if we think of the word ‘victory', ‘victory', We have three syllables: vic-to-ry. The primary stress is ‘VIK'. The second syllable is a reduced vowel, and therefore we pronounce a schwa there. So even though it's spelled with the letter O, we don't pronounce the O – it's not ‘VIK-to-ri', but ‘VIK-tuh – schwa – ‘VIK-tuh-ri'. And the ‘i' at the end is a pure vowel. We want to think of it as a secondary stress. It's not the primary stress and it's not reduced. Let's do it together. ‘VIK-tuh-ri'. “victory”.

Let's take another example. ‘congratulate'. First, let's identify what the primary stress is. con-GRA-tu-late. ‘k'n-GRA-djuh-leit'. The GRA is the primary stress. Now, if intuitively you want to pronounce the full vowel there, you might say something like ‘cOn-grA-tU-late', right? Thinking that the letters represent the pronunciation. Right? And O is usually associated with ‘o', right? ‘cOn-grA-tU-late', or even ‘cOn-grA-chU-late', because there is a T there.

So, the question is – and this is where you'll have to start trusting your intuition – question is: if you reduce the vowel in a syllable that is not the primary stress, for example, ‘k'n' versus ‘kon' – does it still sound okay? Think about it. ‘[kon]-GRA-djuh-leit' – ‘[k'n]-GRA-djuh-leit'. If it still sounds okay and it doesn't mess up the pronunciation of the word, it probably means that it's a schwa and you can reduce it. k'n, k'n. ‘k'n-GRA'.

Then we have the ‘chu', right? ‘k'n-GRA-chu'. Now, this is me telling you, it's actually a ‘dj' sound. Right? But there is the letter U – k'n-GRA-dju-leit. Now intuitively, you want to put the ‘oo' sound cause it's there in the spelling. But what happens if we reduce it? Does it really mess up the pronunciation? ‘k'n-GRA-djuh-leit'. Does that make sense? Can you reduce it? If the answer is yes, you can reduce it and it doesn't mess up the pronunciation so much, it's probably a schwa. ‘k'n-GRA-djuh-leit'. And yes, it is the schwa.

What about the last syllable – ‘late'? Let's try to reduce that. ‘k'n-GRA-djuh-[l't]'. Now, this feels a little weird. And I hope it does to you, too. ‘k'n-GRA-djuh-l't'. Right? All of a sudden, it doesn't feel like the word that we're familiar with. So, turning ‘kon-GRA-djuh-leit' to ‘k'n-GRA-djuh-leit' doesn't change the word so much. But turning ‘k'n-GRA-djuh-leit' to ‘k'n-GRA-djuh-l't' actually changes the word. It doesn't seem right. And this is because of a fact that the ‘late' at the end is a pure vowel. It's a secondary stress, and it can not be reduced to a schwa. ‘k'n-GRA-djuh-leit'. “congratulate”.

So what am I saying here, really? Because I'm not expecting you to start analyzing every word before using it. What I'm saying is, I first want you to understand the method and the system. Because when you understand that some syllables are fully pronounced higher, louder in pitch, longer, that's the primary stress. And these vowel sounds cannot be reduced.

But then the rest of the syllables, some are more important, and that would be your default pronunciation, the pronunciation of a full vowel. And others can be reduced. You don't have to pronounce the full vowel. And like I said, esspecially in long words. Right? So, if you don't have to pronounce it, when you start reducing it, all of a sudden you invest less energy, and the rhythm starts changing. Instead of ‘kon-GRA-chu-leit' – ‘k'n-GRA-djuh-leit'. ‘k'n-GRA-djuh-leit' – short-long-short-medium. Right?

Let's look at another example. “hospital”. Now, if I were to read it phonetically, I would probably say something like ‘hOs-pi-tal'. And maybe this is how you're pronouncing it. And by the way, if you say ‘hOs-pi-tal', people are probably going to still understand you. However, let's take the word “hospital”, and see if we can improve and refine the pronunciation here.

So first, let's identify the primary stress. In this case, it's the first syllable – HAA. The O is the AA as in “father “, pronounced with a back open vowel sound: HAAS. Then we have ‘pi', right? But if I reduce it, does it change the quality of the word? ‘HAAS-puh-t'l', ‘HAAS-puh-t'l'. Not really, right? You've heard the word before pronounced this way. I'm telling you, once you become more aware of the schwa, you'll start hearing it everywhere.

So, ‘HAAS-puh'. And then, if you're used to pronouncing it with an ‘a' sound – ‘tal', ‘HAAS-puh-tal', what happens if you reduce it? ‘HAAS-puh-t'l'. ‘HAAS-puh-t'l'. And you can see how it changes the rhythm of the word. “hospital”.

So, identifying the primary stress is the most important thing. Then, you want to see if the rest of the syllables can be reduced or perhaps we need to keep the full pronunciation. By the way, another very effective way to find out if a word has a schwa in it or not, is to look it up the dictionary. Right? And then you'll see this upside-down ‘ə' that represents the schwa sound.

Now, a lot of people ask me, does it change, does the schwa sound change in the pronunciation of words? And to that, I want to say, yes, sometimes, but I don't want you to think about it. The idea is to reduce the pronunciation into this very neutral vowel sound – ‘uh'. Because yes, the schwa is affected by what comes before and what comes after.

For example, “around” is not going to sound the same to you as “people” – ‘uhl' – that's the schwa sound before the dark L. It's affected by the L, so it doesn't have the same quality as ‘uh-round'. And even here, sometimes I might anticipate the R sound – ‘uh-round', and the schwa is going to be affected. And that might be different than “holiday”. ‘ho-luh' – ‘uh', that sounds a little more neutral.

So yes, the schwa is influenced by what comes before and what comes after. But for our purposes right now, you want to always reach this very neutral ‘uh' sound, that I sometimes like to respell with UH, cause it's like this ‘uh' that people think about when they're trying to come up with something to say: “Uh… let me think about it”, but very reduced.

Now, I also mentioned that we don't only use the schwa in words, but also in phrases, and in particular, in function words. So, a sentence is comprised of more important words and less important words. Content words – nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs; and function words. Function words are all the small grammatical words, like prepositions, and articles, and determiners, and all the ‘on-in-at', ‘could, would, should', ‘am, is, are', that we add between words.

Those words, when they're unstressed, they're usually reduced to a schwa. “What do you” – ‘wadaya'. Right? So it's not “what do you”, I'm not pronouncing the full vowels. So I'm reducing the vowel to a schwa because the entire word is a little less important. I'm mentioning it really briefly because: A) I have a bunch of videos teaching you that, and I'm going to link to them in the description below; and B) because I want you to understand that the schwa is not just this something that we use in words, but it has a big part in American intonation, and rhythm, and stress. And it's not that you need to use it all the time, but recognizing that it exists can truly make your life a lot easier. And in particular, your English and your English practice.

Okay. So now let's practice it together. I'm going to say a word, and you are going to guess where the schwa is. Try to hear it, and you can even write it down.

  • campus
  • possibility
  • procedure
  • atmosphere
  • communicate
  • cafeteria
  • lemon
  • personal

Okay, that's it. Thank you so much for watching. If you enjoyed this video and you learned something new, I would really appreciate it if you could like this video and even share it with your friends. And if you haven't subscribed to my channel yet, then now is the time. Because I release a video about something related to pronunciation, confidence, intonation, fun English practice every single week.

Thank you so much for watching. And if you want to put what you've learned into practice, write down in the comments at least three words that have at least one schwa in them. Are you ready for the challenge? I'm going to be in the comments, checking your answers.

All right. Have a beautiful, beautiful day. And I'll see you next week in the next video. Bye.

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