The Story of Sounds: Episode 18: Discovering /ǝ/ and /ɜː/

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:

Journey 1

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”….”

Journey 2

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.

Journey 3

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.

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8 Responses to The Story of Sounds: Episode 18: Discovering /ǝ/ and /ɜː/

  1. Stephanie says:

    That is such a helpful description. I also find playing the idiot works for my audience (class). I try to attach emotions to each vowel sound too (like disgust ‘urgh’ or admiration ‘ahh’)

  2. Michał says:

    I myself tried similar ways of introducing the sound (including smacking myself on the face to make it relaxed -but funnily enough never thought of calling it “an idiot sound” when I probably should)/ However I never though of starting with the strong vowel and then going for schwa. This is so much easier. Thank you.

    • Yes I agree. So obvious isn’t it. I wait for someone to point out some disastrous shortcoming of this approach. But the whole tactile / physical / energetic aspect of sounds and connected speech, in this case having a lot of a sound, and then having only a bit of it, opens up new ways of learning and teaching. As I keep saying, proprioception is the key, and this does not a strong characteristic of most approaches to pronunciation learning that I am aware of.

  3. Anthony says:

    Thanks Adrian, I check this blog often and always find great ideas.
    I wonder if you or anyone else has any tips for introducing the schwa in American English as the /ɜː/ is absent. I’ve often had trouble introducing the sounds in the second row with my students. Somehow, the transition seems to be much more natural on the British version of the chart.

  4. Thanks Adrian for sharing this. I was with a group of Catalan students on Monday who needed to practise the big idiot sound so we made the typical list of words to listen and repeat. I put pairs of examples with the same vowel spelling on the list to emphasize that it is a) so common and b) so difficult for them to read aloud as the same, rhyming long vowel sound. I was surprised to see how very difficult it was for them to perceive how it should sound. As an example, instead of bird they said bed and then beard type sounds. So they really were guessing at what to do with their articulation. This coincides with many people, including me and my students, here in Catalonia watching the news about the Scottish Referendum and after watching interviews with Scottish people I have realised the pronunciation attempts of my students were much more similar to them than my model so I am wondering if all the exposure to that has had an influence. Well, just thinking out loud, as you do when your inner voice gets busy.

  5. Mr.Al Fayed says:

    It would appear to me the square symbol for the schwa sound which you are used here isn’t common and not well-known with most learners. So , it’s better using the common symbol.
    It’s like the letter e in writing but it is written upsidedown with two colons beside it.

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