Phonetic sounds to perfect your English pronunciation

Back by popular demand, this article follows on from our recent blog “An Introduction to Phonetics”. You will remember that the English Language contains 44 separate sounds and some of them are unique to the English language. This can be very challenging and confusing for learners of English.

Thanks to this new series, phonetics enthusiasts will be delighted to discover new phonemes and their sound as well as the secret to better pronunciation.

It’s important to learn a few sounds at a time and today we are focusing on two popular sounds.

The phoneme /ə/ also known as the Schwa

It is the most common vowel sound in English and not using it would lead to pronunciation errors.

It is a weak, unstressed sound, close to “uh” sound found in an unstressed syllable.

Dubbed the “lazy vowel, all you need to do to reproduce it is to relax your lips, jaw and neck. Drop your jaw a little and there you’ve got it! “uh” “uh”

Commonly used with “er” sounds

The Schwa sound tends to be associated with “er” ending words such as:

better, water, mother, remember and teacher.

However, it is worth noting the differences in pronunciation between different types of English.

In Standard British English, “er” ending words do end with the Schwa sound while in American, Scottish and Irish English, the schwa sound will be followed by the “r” sound. This is because Standard British English is non-rhotic whereas American, Scottish and Irish English is.

Rhotic is used for describing an accent in which the speaker pronounces the letter ‘r’ after a vowel.

Every vowel may sound the /ə/ sound but not always!!

The following words do have the Schwa sound:

a – about       → /ə/bout

e – the            → th/ə/

i  – family        → fam/ə/ly

o – carrot       → carr/ə/t

u –  particular → partic/ə/lar

It can be tricky to identify the Schwa sound vowels. Practise your listening skills and check the phonetic transcription in dictionaries and I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it!

The phoneme/æ/as in “hat” or “cat”

This is a short voiced sound, voiced means that we are using our vocal cords, we are making a sound. This sound is usually associated with the letter “a”.

It can be at the beginning of the word:

at – as – apple – action

Or within a word:

back – hat – map – sat

Be aware that in American English, some words use the /æ/ sound whereas they don’t in British English, for example:

bath – laugh – ask

Knowing and using these two phonemes will change your pronunciation forever! Next time you watch an American TV series or you listen to an English podcast, pay attention to those two sounds in particular and try to replicate them!


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