The most important sound in English

Want to take your English pronunciation to the next level? You’ve masted vocabulary and grammar, but you’d like to sound more like a native speaker? Or maybe you still find it hard to understand native speakers? There’s one trick that can help to understand and make pronunciation more natural. It all comes down to one sound: the schwa sound.

Though it’s the most common sound in the English language, most people never learn about the schwa sound in their English classes. It is written /ə/ and is pronounced ‘uh’. This video shows you how to make the sound.

The schwa sound is used to say some vowels. In every sentence and some words, there are sounds that are stressed and some which are not stressed. Some unstressed sounds are a schwa sound. Here are some examples of words with this sound:

  • computer /kəmˈpjuːtə/
  • teacher /ˈtiːʧə/
  • under /ʌndə/
  • future /ˈfjuːʧə/
  • yesterday /ˈjɛstədeɪ/
  • company /ˈkʌmpəni/
  • around /əˈraʊnd/
  • about /əˈbaʊt/
  • Australia /ɒˈstreɪliːə/

In addition, in sentences there are some words which are stressed and some which are not stressed. Normally, we stress nouns and verbs because these are most important to understand the meaning.

In these sentences, we could stress the following words or sounds:

Would you like a cup of coffee?

Do you have a laptop?

This is for you.

I’m going to work.

He’s from Malaysia.

Sometimes, we say words that are not stressed as a schwa sound when they are in a sentence. These are some common examples:

  • a /ə/
  • the /ðə/
  • of /əv/
  • to /tə/
  • for /fə/
  • at /ət/
  • from /frəm/
  • are /ə/
  • am /əm/
  • an /ən/

So if I just say the word for I would say: /fɔː/ “four”

But in the sentence ‘This is for you‘ I would say: /fə/ “fuh”

To in the sentence ‘I’m going to work‘ would be: /tə/ “tuh”

And from in the sentence ‘He’s from Malaysia‘ would be: /frəm/ “frum”

It can take some time to get used to this new sound, but once you master it, it will be a lot easier to understand native speakers – and to sound like one too!

Extra practice
- Download a short podcast and listen out for the schwa sounds. 
If you can, download a script and mark the schwa sounds you hear.
- Find a short text and mark where the schwa sounds should be. 
Practise reading the text aloud with schwa sounds. If you are 
not sure, you can use a dictionary to check.
- The BBC Pronunciation Workshop has a great video with more
examples.

Can you think of any more words with a schwa sound? Are there any other sounds you find difficult to pronounce?

How to say the ‘-ed’ sound like a native speaker

Pronunciation is one of the hardest things about learning English. You have practised using the past tense and know that regular verbs add -ed. Writing these verbs is easy, but saying them can be difficult because -ed can have different sounds. Here are the three different sounds and how to know when to use them.

/ɪd/

We use this sound when we add -ed to verbs ending in a d or t sound. This /ɪd/ sound makes another syllable at the end of the verb.

  • wanted: “want-id”
  • found: “found-id”
  • ground: “ground-id”
  • land: “land-id”
  • visit: “visit-id”
  • paint: “paint-id”

What counts is the last sound, so even if the last letter of the verb is an e, if it sounds like a d or a t, we add /ɪd/ .

  • taste: “taste-id”
  • waste: “waste-id”
  • promote: “promote-id”
  • code: “code-id”
  • shade: “shade-id”

/d/

We use this sound when we add -ed to verbs ending in voiced sounds. A voiced sound is a sound we use our voice box (in the throat) to create. There is a simple test to check if a sound is voiced. Place your fingers across the front of your neck and say one sound or letter. If you feel a vibration in your throat, the sound is voiced. All vowel sounds are voiced. The other voiced sounds are:

  • /b/ “b”
  • /d/ “d”
  • /g/ “g”
  • /ʤ/ “j”
  • /l/ “l”
  • /m/ “m”
  • /n/ “n”
  • /r/ “r”
  • /v/ “v”
  • /w/ “w”
  • /j/ “y”
  • /z/ “z”
  • /ð/ “th” in this
  • /ʒ/ “s” in vision
  • /ŋ/ “ng”

When we add the /d/ sound, there is no extra syllable, so a verb with one syllable still only has one syllable in the past form. Some examples of verbs that ended in a voiced sound and add the /d/ sound are:

  • logged: “log-d”
  • thrived: “thrive-d”
  • advised: “advise-d”
  • planned: “plan-d”
  • called: “call-d”
  • played: “play-d”
  • tried: “try-d”
  • measure: “measure-d”

/t/

We use this sound when we add -ed to verbs ending in unvoiced sounds. An unvoiced sound is a sound we do not use our voice box (in the throat) to create. We just use air and the shape of our mouth, tongue and lips to make the sound. If you place a finger across the front of your neck and say an unvoiced letter or sound, there is no vibration. Unvoiced sounds are:

  • /f/ “f”
  • /h/ “h”
  • /k/ “k”
  • /p/ “p”
  • /s/ “s”
  • /t/ “t”
  • /ʧ/ “ch”
  • /ʃ/ “sh”
  • /θ/ “th” in three

If a verb ends with one of the above sounds, we say the -ed as a /t/. Again, we do not add an extra syllable in the past tense, just the /t/ sound. Here are some examples:

  • packed: “pack-t”
  • stopped: “stop-t”
  • missed: “miss-t”
  • watched: “watch-t”
  • wished: “wish-t”
  • mixed: “mix-t”
Extra practice: When you learn new verbs, practise using them in
the past too. Here are more tips on learning vocabulary.