Don’t Sweat the Schwa

Mark Hancock presenting online pronunciation teaching course with T Veigga ELT

Coursebooks are big on schwa. Is it because schwa is said to be the most frequent sound in the English language? Is it because it’s an “issue” for all students, no matter what their L1? Whatever the reason, students get a lot of exposure to it, and sooner or later, someone is bound to ask something to the effect, “How exactly is it pronounced?”

Cue the teacher making little grunting noises and talking about how relaxed the mouth must be to make this sound. At this point, we are on thin ice. When a student asks how schwa differs from the the vowel in duck, the thin ice cracks. Because no matter how clearly the teacher demonstrates his/her version of the two phonemes, the difference seems to be barely perceivable to the student.

Student thinking, “Surely such a small difference can’t be so important!”

Teacher thinking, “Aargh, get me out of here!”

Books sometimes present schwa as if it were just another phoneme, equivalent to any other. Phonemic charts may encourage this perception, with the occupants of each little cell seemingly equivalent to one another, like chocolates in a chocolate box*. The chocolates are all the same kind of thing, but just with slightly contrasting flavours. The schwa however is not the same kind of thing – instead of contrasting with other vowel phonemes, it may substitute for them in unstressed syllables. It’s precise sound quality is not its essential feature. When teaching it, we should focus on it’s role in differentiating stressed and unstressed syllables rather than its exact sound quality.

Attempting to demonstrate and drill the schwa sound is what takes us on to the thin ice mentioned above, because it is not sufficiently different from some other vowel sounds – the duck vowel in particular. Ironically, the distinction becomes even less clear the more we focus on it: all that attention causes us to place stress on the sound, which is precisely what it shouldn’t have. So to sum up: Don’t sweat the schwa!

* This is the reason why, in the PronPack Sound Chart, the schwa is given an exceptional position, to discourage the impression of equivalence with the other phonemes.

5 Replies to “Don’t Sweat the Schwa”

  1. I think the teacher has to show the contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables in words and stressed and unstressed words in a sentence.

  2. There are some really good points here, especially that schwa has no minimal pairs. I’d never realised that the sound varied more than other vowel sounds depending on the word, so that’s really good to know if that is what is meant.

    I’m not sure I agree that it’s difficult to demonstrate and distinguish (the most commonly explained version of) the pronunciation of schwa though. The mouth in “but”, “run”, etc is not fully relaxed but extended further down than a relaxed schwa mouth, using the mouth muscles (if in a different way to vowels with a more closed mouth). I would say that “bat” and “but” is a much more difficult distinction to explain, teach, model and get students to copy (even if you don’t come from New York).

    I always wouldn’t go so far on avoiding teaching schwa in individual (content) words, as it can be a common reason for students recognising words like “comfort” and “professor” when they hear them , especially if there are similar words in L1.

    1. Thanks for your comments Alex! In many accents, the schwa has the same vowel quality as ‘duck’, only unstressed. The word ‘but’, being a function word, would normally be unstressed in context, meaning it has schwa. However, said in isolation (‘citation form’) it would be stressed, hence the ‘duck’ vowel. In such accents, the both vowels in ‘comfort’ have the same vowel quality, but the first is stressed (‘duck’ vowel) and the second unstressed (schwa). In accents where those two vowels have a different quality, I would say that difference is incidental rather than essential.
      That’s why I think it’s a fool’s errand (in the ELT classroom) to try and distinguish schwa from ‘duck’ vowel in terms of vowel quality; they need to be distinguished in terms of vowel intensity, ie stressed or unstressed. I think it’s better for ELT purposes to regard schwa as an allophone of many different vowel sounds when they occur in an unstressed context.

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