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”.
It is by far the most frequently occurring vowel in spoken British English and despite its “nearly nothing” acoustic quality it is arguably the most important vowel for learners of English to get their mouths and ears round, and here’s why:
The challenge for learners of English is undoubtedly the comfortable intelligibility of rapid colloquial English along with the speaking of, let’s say, a more careful colloquial English that in turn has comfortable intelligibility for their listeners. At the heart of this challenge is the way English speakers simplify, reduce, de-energise, alter and even completely dispense with unstressed syllables. And the key to unstressing syllables is the most frequent unstressed vowel in English /ǝ/ schwa. Indeed schwa is the only vowel that is always unstressed, never stressed. It is this unstressing that allows native speakers to ‘swallow’ their syllables, to speak quickly and to enjoy an apparently syllable timed delivery.
In short, schwa is the key vowel making possible by contrast the stress system that gives us both wordstress (which is largely determined by the language and so predictable as to be confidently presented in dictionaries without need of reference to the speaker), and sentence stress (which is determined by the speaker in order to highlight the meaning they want to convey in the moment).
So, how do you produce the schwa sound, especially since there is not very much of it? Well, the next paragraph is a fairly simple cognitive description that informs me when I am teaching …..
Schwa has a neutral and central setting. This means that the tongue is central relative to the other English vowels and is quite relaxed, there is no muscle tension, as if the tongue is at rest. And the lips are neutral, neither rounded nor spread, in fact also quite at rest. If you let go of all muscle tone from lips, jaw and tongue and then gently apply the voice you are likely to be pretty close to the Schwa sound.
The paragraph you have just read is what I am thinking, but NOT what I say to my students. What I may actually say and do with my students is more like what follows. Note that I start with /ɜː/ rather than /ǝ/ as it offers a more accessible and tangible starting point:
I model the relaxing of my face including tongue, jaw, lips and cheeks. I mime this by looking ‘like an idiot’ and indicating with my fingers how the parts of my face are loose, lax, without muscle tone.
So I may say something like “Relax your face like me …. Don’t do anything…. Now see what sound comes out ….” I might even say “Try to look like an idiot….” While I do the same thing myself. There may be a ripple of laughter, and this seems to give permission to let go, to experiment, to unhook from any embarrassment.
As I mime this relaxed idiot look (!) I also with a slow gesture pull a continuous sound from my lips or from theirs. In general the sound they produce is usefully close to /ɜː/ and while inviting students to listen to the differences between them it is usually possible to tune into a pretty passable version of /ɜː/
(Once they have got the sound and the minimal muscle tone, and if they are still busily looking like idiots, I say “Ok now make the same sound and look like your normal intelligent self”)
Then I point to /ɜː/ on the chart and tell them “…This is the sound you are making. For the moment we’ll call it the “idiot sound”….”
The next thing is to establish this fairly long and clear neutral sound by pointing to the symbol and gesturing the length by ‘pulling ‘ the sound from them.
At this point it becomes easy to see visually who has got the sound and who has not, because some learners will have a visible muscle tone in the face, especially the lips. You may see for example spread rather than neutral lips, or a slight rounding of the lips, or a tension in the lower lip. And when you listen to that student you can hear how this presence of muscle tone may have altered the vowel quality away from /ɜː/. This provides a good opportunity to work with them on the intentional letting go of muscle tone, because this is going to be a foundation for their future ability to unstress syllables.
Having established /ɜː/ I then invite them to repeat this several times, and with a simple gesture I reduce the length a bit each time, also indicating a reduction of energy and volume. And we do this several times until we have shrunk /ɜː/ down to nearly nothing, and then I point to /ǝ/ on the chart and tell them “What you are now saying is this”. And then I can point at the two symbols /ɜː/ and /ǝ/ on the chart and they can practice and contrast these two sounds, which I tell them I sometimes call “The big idiot” and “The small idiot”. However pc this may be, students seem to find it amusing, memorable, and most importantly it speaks direct to the physicality of the sound. They like it even more when I add that “…. /ǝ/ is also the most important sound in English….”
In the next episode of The Story of Sounds I’ll say a bit more about working with /ǝ/ and /ɜː/ before moving on to the discovery of further vowels.