Advanced speakers of English get to the point where they really want to sound as native-like as possible. Getting there requires understanding and applying the correct contrast between stressed and unstressed words. In today's post, I answer some frequently asked questions about de-emphasis and the schwa sound.
Q. What makes the American English schwa sound so hard to produce?
A. It's possible that some of the trouble stems from its importance. Meaning, it could be psychological. The sound itself is not so hard to produce. It can be the over-thinking that may cause the difficulties. However, the more relaxed we can make the jaw and facial muscles, the more likely we'll be able to get the schwa sound out more easily. Again, I don't think the sound is hard to say. I think it is hard to do.
Q. What is the relationship between emphasized and de-emphasized words when it comes to tone and volume?
A. There is a direct and important relationship between the information words (emphasized) and structure words (de-emphasized). It's like this: When we emphasize a word, we make it longer, louder and higher in pitch. And when we de-emphasize a word, we don't do any of that. We might need to address a stressed syllable in a structure word, but that's about it. So, if we keep our attention on the contrast between the important and less important words our volume and pitch, and length, by the way, will go up and down or in and out, however you'd like to think about it. This makes for the music of the language. In music, we talk about the downbeat and the upbeat. In music, the accent is placed on the downbeat and we do the same thing with vocal emphasis. We place the stress on the important words.
Q. For a non-native English speaker, how hard is it to practice the de-emphasis of structure words?
A. It can be hard because when we learn a second language we tend to put a lot of attention on the pronunciation of every sound. And that leads to the emphasis of every word. Once we make the mental shift that not all words are created equal, we can begin to practice those quiet, unstressed words with more confidence. Again, I equate it to music. Whether you know how to play the piano or not, you probably are aware that pianos have these pedals near the floor. Those pedals change the quality or volume of sound you get. So, when a composer writes a piece of music, there are times that the soft pedal is required to communicate and express the song. You can start to think about de-emphasis as part of your emotional connection to your communication. It's just the softer, quieter words. The parts of the sentence that make it a language, but not necessarily the words that communicate the meaning.
Q. Is the schwa sound the main way we reduce structure words?
A. Yes. And the schwa sound can take on slightly different shapes in pronunciation depending on the sounds that are next to it. So, it may not always be a super-pure /uh/ sound. But, the schwa is soft, quiet, and requires very little movement of the jaw and facial muscles. It's used for as many syllables and structure words as possible so that the "stars" of the sentence can really shine. If we stay with our musical analogy in this post, think about the solo of a lead guitar. The other instruments get quiet. They become the "structure words", supporting the lead guitarist. They are a totally necessary part of the composition (the language), but not the MOST important part during the time of the solo. Get it?