B2 Upper Intermediate English Pronunciation practice
Written by Michelle, Founder of The Free Language Project
Do you struggle to pronounce all of the vowel sounds correctly, but to your dismay, still have an accent when you speak English?
Let me introduce you to the schwa.
The schwa is the most common vowel sound in English. It sounds a little like a grunt, and would be written like “uh.” Although it seems a bit ridiculous, this silly sound is actually the key to sounding like a native English speaker. Let me explain.
Over time, our presumably lazy ancestors have replaced many of our regular vowel sounds with this “uh” sound. Whole syllables have even been lost in the process.
What we are left with today is a dictionary full of English words that are pronounced very differently than they are written. English language learners are stuck trying to pronounce the sound of each written letter in the word, frustrated to find that they are saying it all wrong.
I’d like to share some tips that will help you to have success in perfecting your pronunciation in English.
Schwa in the dictionary
How do you know when to use the schwa? Well, it can replace any vowel, so it’s hard to remember when to use it. One huge help is your English dictionary. Each entry has a pronunciation key written phonetically(as it sounds).
The symbol for the schwa sound is an upside down e. It looks like this:
Two great words that use the schwa:
That’s right. Your favorite food has been tricking you all this time. The A at the end of this weird is not a short a, but a Shwa. /PEET/zuh/ Dictionary: ˈpiːtsə
In this word the second short /o/ is replaced with the schwa, so it’s pronounced like /bi/OL/uh/gee/. Dictionary: bʌɪˈɒlədʒi
Over time, this unstressed, lazy sound has swallowed up entire syllables forever. Look at some examples.
Every English student that I’ve taught has always pronounced this word with three syllables, with the schwa in the middle of the word. /FAM/uh/lee/. How do we pronounce this in the United States? Usually, we only use two syllables. /FAM/lee/.
Why this difference? English speakers have adopted the practice of deleting syllables with the schwa sound over time. A word that was pronounced with 3 syllables 100 years ago will just be pronounced with 2 today. Let’s look at some more examples:
Camera. Previous pronunciation: /CAM/uh/ruh/ -ˈkam(ə)rə
Current pronunciation: /CAM/ruh/ – ‘kam rə
Separate. Previous pronunciation: /SEP/uh/rit/ – ˈsɛp(ə)rət
Current pronunciation: /SEP/rit/ – ˈsɛp rət
(Only when used as an adjective)
Different. Previous pronunciation: /DIF/uh/rint/ -ˈdɪf(ə)r(ə)nt/
Current pronunciation: /DIF/rint/ – ˈdɪf r(ə)nt/
Studying these examples and using them in your own speech can really improve your pronunciation and speed up your progress in becoming more skilled at pronouncing English words just like a native speaker.