Your top 5 English pronunciation mistakes: overview
Do you know what these five English words have in common?: chocolate, children, holiday, welcome, Saturday.
To find out the answer, play the five flashcards below and click on the top right arrows to flip them:
In a moment, I’m going to show you what those five words have in common, but first:
What are all those strange symbols?
The symbols you’ve seen on those flashcards are part of what’s called the phonetic alphabet: /æ/, /n/, d/, /ə/, /ɒ/, /ɪ/, etc.
The English language has 45 sounds, and each of them is represented by a unique symbol.
What the words above: “chocolate“, “children“, “holiday“, “welcome“ and “Saturday“ all have in common is one of those symbols: /ə/.
/ə/ is the symbol that represents the sound known as “schwa”. Play this flashcard to hear it said by a native speaker:
If you look closely at the phonetic transcriptions of the words: “chocolate“, “children“, “holiday“, “welcome“ and “Saturday“, you’ll notice that any of the five vowels, A E I O U, can have the /ə/ sound.
That’s what makes the /ə/ so wonderfully English:
- chocolate /ˈtʃɒklət/
- children /ˈtʃɪldrən/
- holiday /ˈhɒlədeɪ/
- welcome /ˈwelkəm/
- Saturday /ˈsætədeɪ/
The /ə/ is one of the main reasons why English often sounds unclear to non-native speakers.
When a native speakers says, for example:
you may be expecting to hear a full O, like the one you’re used to from your first language. But what you get instead is an indescribable vowel sound that could be any written vowel.
That’s the /ə/ sound.
Let’s listen again to the O, or rather, the /ə/ in “welcome”:
The /ə/ is not just the reason why you often find it difficult to understand native speakers. It’s also the reason why native speakers find it difficult to understand you.
Words become unclear to native English speakers when they expect to hear a /ə/ but, instead, you say a full A E I O or U.
To the native English ear the /ə/ is not an unclear sound, but rather an essential one that can’t be replaced by a full vowel.
Why is this the most important sound in English?
When I was planning these free pronunciation lessons I asked myself: “which of the 45 English sounds do non-native speakers need to work on first to see the fastest improvement in their pronunciation? Which one made the biggest difference when I was working on my accent?”
To me, the answer was undoubtedly: the /ə/ sound.
/ə/ is the most common sound in the English language. Unfortunately, it’s also a sound that non-native speakers tend to ignore.
As we’ll see throughout this module, becoming familiar with this tricky but fascinating sound has two great benefits:
- It’s the fastest way to improve your English pronunciation.
- It’s the easiest way to develop your listening skills.
Linguists have proved that, as adults, we can only hear the sounds we already know from our first language.
Most of us, non-native speakers of English, can’t distinguish the /ə/ unless we train ourselves to hear it. Which is why we tend to give English vowels the full sound we’re used to from our mother tongue.
To learn to distinguish and produce the /ə/ you need to do targeted practice, and you do that by combining these two types of exercise:
- Listening to individual words with a /ə/ recorded by native speakers.
- Saying out loud those same words along with the recordings.
When you do those two exercises regularly, over a period of time, you’ll start to distinguish the /ə/, and you’ll begin to understand real-speed English more easily.
You’ll find that you now longer expect the A in “address”, the E “problem”, the I in “holiday”, the O in “police” or the U in “yoghurt” to sound like the A E I O U in your first language.
Also, as you start saying the /ə/ better, you’ll begin to sound more natural and clear. Step by step, your English will get that unique rhythm that will make you sound like a native speaker.
An interesting note
Some words are pronounced quite differently in British and American English. For example, “address” doesn’t have a /ə/ in American English.
To help you with those words, my English Pronunciation Course has a whole section on the differences between British and American English.
The magical sentence
Before we move on to the next lesson, “How to produce the /ə/“, let me give you a sentence that we’ll see in detail at the end of this module.
For the moment, I just want you to play it a couple of times. Notice how you can understand some of the words in this sentence clearly, but others aren’t so clear. Play it a couple of times:
By the end of this module you’ll be able to distinguish all the /ə/ sounds in that sentence, including the unexpected ones.
Let’s now go through how to produce the /ə/ sound.