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Schwa, Intonation and Stress



Hey guys, hope you're all well, I have another topic that I promised to do a while back for you all. 

Why is English so difficult to pronounce? 

As everybody who has studied English as a foreign language knows – English is a relatively easy language to learn, up to a point. It is easy and quick for most learners to reach intermediate levels, as the basic grammatical structures are straightforward, and the vocabulary is simple and often has traces in students’ own languages. This is one of the reasons why English has become so popular as an international – to speak it to a level in which two people can communicate is quite easy. 

But then when people aim for a higher level, things get more difficult. Advanced grammar is quite tricky, with numerous conditional and modal constructions to deal with, but this is not the hardest part at all. The real difficulties in mastering English to a proficient level are firstly all the phrasal verbs and strange sayings that natives use (I recommend Steven Collins’ excellent series of books on this topic) and secondly, of course, pronunciation.

So why is English pronunciation so difficult? Why do people who speak a high level of grammatical English, make so many mistakes when they actually say their perfectly constructed sentences? On today’s podcast, we will look at 3 key difficulties in English pronunciation: 

1. Written vs Spoken English 

It would be a lot simpler to pronounce English if the written form resembled the spoken form more closely. Amongst the most confusing bits are silent letters – R, L. B, H, N, P, S, T & W are all silent some of the time. Then there are letters that can be pronounced in lots of different ways – ‘T', for example, can be pronounced in at least 5 ways. 



And that’s just consonants – English contains 19 vowel sounds, but it only has 5 vowels to spell them with, so who could possibly guess that ‘good’, ‘food’ and ‘blood’ all contain different vowel sounds. 

2. Sounds 
And the invisible star of English speech, the schwa sound but many learners of English pronunciation have never heard of it and do not use it. 
What is the schwa /ə/? 

Schwa is by far the most common vowel sound in English – RP English speakers use it about once every three vowels they pronounce. To put it another way, if you don’t use the schwa sound in your speech, you could be making a pronunciation error 1 out of 3 of the time (if you are aiming for GB English). To illustrate this, listen to and read the passage below, the schwa vowel is written in. 

"I’d like tə go shopping fər ə pair əf shoes, bət thə shops ə closed becəse thəs ə weathər əlert. əparrəntly lots əf snow is coming in frəm thə Highlənds so thə govərnmənt həv ədvised peopəl tə stay ət home." 
Schwa is a neutral vowel – in order to produce it your tongue should be flat and resting, your lips should be relaxed (not spread or rounded) and your jaw should be relaxed. 



SO where does Schwa appear? 
The main problem is that you cannot see it on the written page – it can be spelt with ‘a’ (about), ‘e’ (father), ‘i’ (lentil), ‘o’ (polite) or ‘u’ (column), so unless you are trained to spot it, errors will occur. The key to recognising schwa is stress; schwa is only weak. 



Schwa also appears in small words like ‘to’, ‘from’, & ‘are’ in connected speech, which are known as ‘function’ words in pronunciation which aren't fully pronounced and you hardly can hear them, they pronounced with weaker forms. 
TH sound 
I just want to quickly to mention the TH sound as it's usually mispronounced. 
There were shockwaves right through the heart of dental fricative fans all over Britain recently when reports surfaced claiming that dental TH sounds will die a death within 50 years, with many ironically claiming such a development is ‘unTHinkable’. Personally, I THink they should THink again, dental TH sounds have survived well over a THousand years THus far, and are holding THeir own in American English. 


There are two dental TH sounds in English, both made by touching the tongue tip behind the top teeth
and squeezing the air through. come on then, all together “The THieves THought that THe THrone was auTHentic.” 



The most common errors are to replace them with /T/ and /D/, so THIN and TIN sound the same, as do THOSE and DOZE. 



On the other hand, there are a few words pronounced with /T/, like the river THAMES, the herb THYME, and the names THOMAS and ESTHER. If you meet anyone called ANTHONY, it’s probably best to ask first, as it can go either way. 



Many learners who are able to pronounce TH sounds in isolation, mispronounce them after letters like /T, D, L, N/. Why? Because these sounds are also made on the teeth if they are followed by TH –, WIDTH, ALTHOUGH, ANTHOLOGY, HEARTTHROB. Compare the position of your tongue when you say the /n/ in AN, with the /n/ in ANTHOLOGY and you should notice the difference. 

3. Intonation & Stress 
Intonation is a difficult skill to control consciously, we rarely think about it as we speak. It is very common for students to import the stress and intonation patterns from their first language, which can create difficulty for the listener. 


The most effective way to master intonation is through working on the three areas separately. 

The English are famous for saying one thing and meaning another – using intonation to show meaning. These subtleties can be lost on a learner of English. English uses a wide pitch range and four patterns – fall↘, fall-rise ↘↗, rise↗ and rise-fall↘. 


If a learner of English is misunderstood, it is more often due to misplaced stress than incorrect pronunciation – for this reason, stress is perhaps the most important aspect of clear speech. 
The high-fall↘ 
A very British melody, this is where the speaker begins high and drops low. 
What a lovely sur↘prise! 
How was your wee↘kend? 
I’d ↘like to watch a film. 

fall-rise ↘↗ 
The English are (perhaps unfairly) famous for a reserved delivery, subtlety, possibly sarcasm. 
He’s a good ↘↗dancer. 
The ↘↗main course was good…. 

There’s always a main stress in any English sentence 
I don’t be↗lieve it. 
Could I ↗ask you something? 
What’s the point of making this sentence so ↗long? 

rise-fall↘ 
There is probably nothing more British than a statement tag, ↘is there? 
That’s a wall, ↘isn’t it? 
Maria’s gone home, ↘hasn’t she? 
There is a lot of work to do, ↘isn't there? 

rise ↗ 
It’s warm in August, ↗generally speaking. 
I’ve had enough, ↗basically. 

But, there's Good News 
Although English is undeniably a very confusing and perhaps complicated language to pronounce well, there is some good news – it can be learnt. Pronunciation is like any other skill – it involves learning new movements and rules and practising them until they become second nature. 

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