The Schwa - Your secret weapon to understanding Native speakers


Sound instantly more British by getting rid of (removing) the -er endings of words. What do I mean by that?

When British people say 'Better' or 'Hotter' or 'Jumper' we don't pronounce the -ER at the end of the words, instead we use something called a SCHWA. The schwa sound can be either your nemesis or your secret weapon depending on whether you're a glass half full or glass half empty type of person.

I'm glass half full as I'm sure you've noticed by now, so I strongly encourage you to make friends with the schwa!

What is it? It's a vowel sound, probably the most common sound in the English language and Adrian Underhill says the following:

'The vowel sound /ǝ/ is as close to nothing as you can get and yet still have a sound. It is the only sound with a name, schwa, which is from Hebrew and means something like “a neutral vowel quality,” literally  “emptiness” or “nothing”.

In a nutshell, English is a stressed language, this means we 'squash', change or omit certain syllables or sounds to make them fit the stress or rhythm of our language. This changes depending on the region you're in or the accent of the individual speaker.

I know this might make you want to give up learning English as it seems unfair, but it's absolutely a sound you can master. Nobody teaches us about the schwa when we're children in the UK, it's something you pick up on naturally from family, friends, tv and the radio. 

If you start by noticing when it's being used then practising it on your own or with a language partner, you'll see a big improvement in your pronunciation and listening ability very quickly.

If you have a dog, they can be very understanding practise partners - I practised rolling my 'r' with Rosie in the park for a couple of weeks and it really worked!

To 'find' the sound (and you might want to do this on your own as you'll look a little strange....)

1) Completely relax your face with your mouth open (yes, the aim is to look very dopey.)

2) Make a long sound without moving your tongue or lips.

3) Now holding the sound, move your lower lip into the tiniest smile, you should just feel the corners of your mouth have some tension.

4) Try the sound again, the /ǝ/ should sound like the 'u' in CUT.

Practise makes perfect! Here is a BBC video to help you practise!