Ah, the schwa. It is the most ubiquitous vowel in the English language, and, for speakers of some languages that don’t have this sound (such as Spanish or Italian), it can be the most difficult to master. Here’s a quick guide on what the schwa is, and what you can do to improve your pronunciation of it.
What it is: The schwa sound occurs in almost all multisyllabic words in English and it can be spelled by any of the vowel letters (a-e-i-o-u-y). This can be confusing when learning to say and spell new words, but in terms of articulation, the schwa is really very simple. It is a mid, central, unrounded vowel; this means that the tongue height (mid) is neither high nor low in the mouth, the tongue location (central) is neither in the front nor the back of the mouth, and that the lips are unrounded. This sound has been called the murmur vowel, the indeterminate vowel, the neutral vowel, the obscure vowel, and the natural vowel. I call it the lazy vowel—simply let your mouth open naturally, let your tongue float in the middle of your mouth, and let out a short sound. Your articulatory muscles do almost nothing while you just make an animalistic grunt with your vocal chords and air. Easy, right?
How to practice it: Okay, so you understand what the schwa is and how to produce it. But how do you actually practice pronouncing it? My advice to students is…don’t. If you focus on “proper pronunciation" of the schwa sound itself, you are likely to over-pronounce it and it will sound like a different vowel. Worse still, it could become stressed, potentially rendering the whole word unrecognizable to your listener.
Rather than trying to improve your pronunciation of the schwa sound itself, you need to focus on stress. The schwa exists because of the stress and rhythm patterns of English; stressed syllables are fully pronounced and the rest are (almost always) shortened to a schwa. By focusing on adding stress to the stressed syllables in an utterance, and shortening the rest, you will start to naturally produce the schwa as it is meant to be said, which is barely at all. Here are 3 ideas for practicing English stress, and the schwa, from the comfort of your own home.
3 Ways to Practice:
Find a text and identify the stressed and unstressed syllables, either through familiarity with the language in oral form or by finding an audio version of the text. Mark where stress falls, and then read it aloud with a timer. How long did it take? Read it again, trying to beat your time with each reading by shortening the unstressed syllables.
Read English rhyming and metered poetry. Again, identify the stressed syllables (easier to do because of the rhythm), then memorize the poem and recite it to yourself whenever you have a spare minute: waiting for the bus, in the shower, walking to the corner bodega. Though the rhythm of poetry can be very different from the rhythm of conversational English, this activity will definitely improve your speed with commonly reduced words.
Record yourself. When I’m helping a student work on stress pronunciation, the biggest problem is usually not putting enough stress on a stressed syllable. There is often a dramatic difference between the pitch and length of a stressed syllable spoken by a native speaker versus a non-native speaker! It can be hard to hear your own pitch and syllable length while you are speaking, so recording yourself is an invaluable tool that allows you to listen to your stress and compare it objectively with a native speaker’s stress.