Schwa Pronunciation: The Secret Sound You Need to Speak Like a Native

The schwa is the most common sound in English, appearing in nearly every word.

But it’s incredibly sneaky.

Native English speakers use it all the time without knowing what it’s called.

Lots of English learners never learn about it in class.

You won’t be able to spot it through a word’s spelling alone.

It might sound challenging based on what I just told you, but if you master the schwa sound today, I promise you’ll notice a huge improvement in your pronunciation.

It’s just one sound—but it’s the most important sound you’ll ever learn.

In this guide, we’ll teach you all about schwa pronunciation. You’ll learn how to identify when a word uses a schwa and how to pronounce it like a native.

What Is the Schwa Sound?

In addition to being the most common sound in English, it’s also one of the shortest and most neutral.

In the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), it’s represented as /ə/. 

What makes the schwa sound so easy to miss is that there’s no specific letter associated with it.

In fact, all of the vowels in English (A, E, I, O, and U) can be turned into a schwa sound.

How to Pronounce the Schwa Sound

There’s a reason why the schwa sound has been called a lazy sound.

You can think of it as being similar to an “uh” or short U sound—yes, the same “uh” that people say when they’re uncertain or hesitant. (“Uh… I’m not sure what you mean”).

Make that “uh” weaker and softer, and you have a close approximation of the schwa sound.

So, your mouth and tongue will need to act “lazy” to make the right sound.

For most of the sounds in English, you have to move your tongue or put tension in your mouth. With the schwa sound, there’s very little effort involved:

  • First, you’ll have to part your lips a little.
  • Then, make a sound while keeping your mouth relaxed.

The resulting sound will be low in pitch and short.

Example: For the word “problem,” the E is pronounced as a schwa, so you would say “pro-bluhm,” not “pro-blehm.” Here’s how that sounds out loud: 

Try saying both versions (“pro-bluhm” and “pro-blehm”) so you can feel the difference.

Notice too that the first syllable (“pro-”) is drawn out and stressed, while the second syllable with the schwa sound is shorter (“-bluhm”). 

Let’s try that out for all of the other vowels! Say each of the words below while making sure to use “uh” for the schwa sound (signified by ə): 

  • A: banana → bənanə → buh-nan-uh
  • E: chicken → chickən → chik-uhn
  • I: possible → possəbəl → pos-uh-buhl
  • O: complete → cəmplete → cuhm’plit 
  • U: stadium → stadiəm → stey-dee-uh

If you’re used to pronouncing the vowels as is, it might seem strange at first to include the schwa sound, but you’ll get the hang of it as you practice on different words.

How to Find the Schwa Sound in Any English Word

To spot the schwa, you’re not going to look at the spelling of the word.

Instead, you’ll have to figure it out from word stress.

When you find an unstressed syllable, the vowel for that is usually going to be a schwa sound.  

Example: The word “banana” has all three A’s, but these aren’t all pronounced the same way. If we look at the dictionary, the pronunciation for “banana” is listed as “bənanə.” This means that:

  • Every time you see the ə, the vowel gets replaced with an “uh” sound!
  • The first and last A’s are schwa sounds, while the middle A is a regular A.
  • You would pronounce it as “buh-nan-uh.”

Technically, you can check out every new word you encounter in the dictionary and take note of any schwa sounds. Or you can listen to how a native speaker pronounces the word and take note of where the word stress is (and isn’t). 

At this point, I guess you might be thinking that the schwa sound is pretty random.

But actually, there are two main patterns that you’ll notice in words that have the schwa sound.  

Pattern #1: The schwa often appears in function words.

English sentences are made up of either content words or function words:

  • Content words convey the message of the sentence. They include nouns and adjectives along with verbs and adverbs.
  • Function words are more like “fillers” that link the content words together to make the sentence grammatically correct. Some examples of these are “the,” “is,” and “that.” 

Function words are unstressed, and vowels in function words generally use the schwa sound.

Let’s look at this sentence: 

I am really excited for today.

“Am” and “for” are function words, so they use the schwa sound. You’d pronounce these as “uhm” and “fuhr.”  

Pattern #2: Otherwise, unstressed syllables generally use a schwa sound. 

When you break a word down into syllables, there’s always one syllable that’s stressed or emphasized, while the remaining syllables are unstressed. Those unstressed syllables usually have their vowels turned into a schwa sound! 

Examples:

  • In the word “to-ge-ther,” the stress is on the middle syllable: “-ge-.” The rest of the syllables are unstressed, so the pronunciation for “together” is “tuh-ge-thuhr.” 
  • We can apply the same logic to the words “tiger” and “alone.” The first syllable in both words is stressed, while the rest of the syllables are unstressed and pronounced with a schwa. The pronunciation for these would be “ti-guhr” and “uh-lohn.”

Given both of these patterns, you can probably see why the schwa sound is so common in English!

So, Why Learn Schwa Pronunciation? 

The schwa sound takes some time to master because you have to get used to saying it. There are many reasons why it’s absolutely worth the effort:

1. The schwa sound is everywhere in English.

With words in English that are hard to pronounce, you might consider “avoiding” them by thinking of a similar word that you find easier to say.

But this isn’t really doable with the schwa sound. At least one in three vowels uses the schwa!

The more frequently a sound appears in English, the more your pronunciation of it affects your overall speech. If you check out guides on how to level up your English pronunciation, they’ll almost always mention the schwa sound—it’s that important. 

2. You’ll avoid misunderstandings.

When you forget to use the schwa sound, the best-case scenario is you’ll sound like you have a heavier accent—but people will still understand what you’re saying.

Some words, though, get distorted heavily when you mispronounce the schwa sound. The resulting pronunciation might sound very confusing, to the point that other English speakers might not recognize the word!

Getting better at the schwa sound lessens the risks of misunderstandings like this. 

3. It maintains the melody of English. 

Since the schwa can be pronounced so effortlessly, syllables with the schwa sound take less time to say.

Example: In the word “pos-si-ble,” the last two syllables (“-sible”) both have the schwa sound. Because of this, they take the same amount of time to say combined as the first syllable (“pos-”).

This property of the schwa sound gives English a certain rhythm and cadence. Two or more syllables can fit into one “beat.”

If you stick with only regular vowels, this rhythm gets broken because certain syllables will take longer to say than they should. This can lead to a breakdown in communication as the irregularities pile up.

Whichever dialect of English that you’re basing your studying on, all three of these reasons apply. If you’re interested in learning the schwa sound for American English, then you might want to consider exploring the Creativa Mastering North American English Pronunciation course.   

It delves into aspects of English pronunciation that learners can easily miss out on—and yet are necessary for speaking English clearly. There’s an entire video episode that’s all about the schwa sound, complete with techniques for picking it up faster!

Creativa provides premium videos for learning English and business communication skills. It also shares useful but unexpected tips and goes beyond just English to teach you body language and intonation. Creativa is a new product from the FluentU team.

Curious about it? Here’s a free video directly from the Creativa pronunciation course. 

 

The schwa sound might be called a lazy vowel, but the challenge lies in remembering to include it correctly in your speaking.

Take it step-by-step, and don’t aim for perfection all at once!

Whenever you encounter a new English word, listen to the pronunciation closely and be mindful if you’ll need to use a schwa. 

Practice as much as you can with English movies, news, TV shows, and anything else that features native speakers. 

Before you know it, your English pronunciation will be better than you ever thought possible!

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