The most important sound in English is the schwa sound (or the "uh" sound). If you get the pronunciation of the schwa sound correct, you will sound more like a native English speaker.
The "uh" sound is quite easy to make. It's the smallest sound in English. So if you open your mouth a tiny amount and make the smallest sound, you get an "uh".
Why is the schwa sound so important?
We use this sound in unstressed words and sentences. In spoken English, only the important, information words are stressed. All the other words (the grammatical words usually) which come between the information words are unstressed. This gives spoken English its distinctive stress pattern.
Here's an example:
"WHAT'S the TIME?"
The words "what's" and "time" are stressed, while "the" is unstressed.
Here's an extended sentence:
"WHAT'S the TIME of the FILM toNIGHT?"
In this longer sentence, the word "film" and the second syllable "night" are stressed. The grammar words "the", "of" and "the" are unstressed, while the first syllable "to" is also unstressed.
The important thing to remember is that each unstressed word or syllable has the schwa sound (the "uh" sound):
the = thuh
of = uhf
the = thuh
to = tuh
Why is the schwa sound difficult?
This "uh" sound is difficult to say for two main reasons:
- it's often said quickly, which makes it hard to hear (and to copy)
- if your first language is "phonetic" (that is, spoken as it's written) it can be hard for you to realise that a word that's written "the" or "of" can be said in the same way!
In fact, if you think about it, all unstressed grammatical words can have an "uh" sound:
about = uh-bout
can = cuhn
for = fuh
a = uh
your = yuh
How to learn and use the schwa sound
First of all, make sure you can hear it. The next time you listen to two native speakers, try to deconstruct their sentences. Listening for the stressed words is relatively easy, but do you know which words are between? This is where having a good grammatical knowledge can really help you. When you identify these grammar words, you'll be able to hear that they're spoken fast, and that they are pronounced with the schwa sound.
Write yourself some simple sentences, and practise saying the unstressed words and syllables with the schwa sound.
Here are a couple for you to try:
SHE LIVES at the TOP of the HILL.
I WANT to STUDY at UNIVERSITY for a WHILE
THERE'S a PIECE of PAPer Over THERE
Need more help? Check out the video for more tips and examples!