Want to speak better English? Pronunciation tip #3: How the DE-emphasis of a word can signal the meaning of a sentence.
In my previous tip #2, I introduced the schwa symbol /ə/ and explained how its soft sound (like the ‘e’ sound in ‘the’) replaces many standard English vowel sounds in speech. This change affects syllable stress and pronunciation in words, but can also sometimes strongly influence the meaning of a spoken statement. English speech favours a pattern of ‘content’ words (information words such as nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.) and ‘function’ words (words such as auxiliary verbs and basic prepositions that perform grammatical roles in linking the content together). It is very common for the vowel in single-syllable function words to take a schwa sound, for example:
‘I will do it’ = /I wəll do it/
‘I can do it’ = /I kən do it/
‘Go to bed’ = /Go tə bed/
Why is this important? Well, first, the “de-stress” (de-emphasis) on function words in English speech complements the stress on the content, so that it is clear when the speaker is presenting new or important information. Second, the speaker has a greater range of expression and does not always need to use over-emphasis. However, this pattern can present problems for learners of spoken English. One common example is the difference between ‘I can do it’ /I kən do it/ and ‘I can’t do it’ /I KAnt do it/. English learners often pronounce ‘I can do it’ with a clear /a/ sound, thus /I KAn do it/. The problem is that most native English speakers are so used to hearing the de-emphasized schwa sound that they will frequently misinterpret the learner’s pronunciation as ‘can’t’ /KAnt/ instead of ‘can’ /kən/, even though the learner has not actually spoken the /t/ ending!
Here are a few more examples of words that often use the schwa sound:
do /də/ (question form)
Recognizing and using rhythm, stress, and de-emphasis are helpful ways of tuning your ear, and then your speech, to English. If you are practicing listening to native speakers (in-person or on recordings) try to identify features like the schwa sound in the words and phrases you are hearing. Notice how the faster someone talks, the more likely you are to hear the schwa sound being used a lot. Get comfortable imitating these sounds and trying them on your tongue, maybe even in conversation with your friends!