International Business English

Speaking English like a Native

If you're a non-native speaker of English and want to improve the way you sound, you will need to know the contracted and weak forms that are commonly used in spoken English. If you don't use these forms then you may not be understood (even if your English is fluent) and the clarity and impact of your communication won't be as effective.

English has a large number of weak and contracted forms which are used frequently when speaking. Learning them is not an easy task.

An example of a weak form is a vowel sound which ironically most native English speakers won't have heard of - although they use it in normal conversation in about 1 in every 4 sounds.

It is called the 'schwa'. When written phonetically it looks like an upside-down 'e':

So how is it pronounced? Say the word 'the', then remove the 'th' sound - and you have it. 

It is very common as any vowel letter and even 'y' can potentially be pronounced this way. For example, if we take the word 'develop' there are 2 'schwa' sounds, found in the first and final syllables. If we were to say 'dee-vel-op' this would sound incorrect, even though this is how it is written. In spoken Engish, the vowel sounds in the unstressed parts of the word, namely 'de-' and '-op' both get reduced to the shorter 'schwa' sound. The vowel sound in the stressed syllable of a word is never reduced. In this case, the second syllable is stressed so the word 'develop' written as it is pronounced would look like this:

This phenomenon occurs because English is what's known as a stress-timed language. This means that the rhythm of the language when spoken is based on the stressed peaks, not the syllables. Languages such as Spanish, Italian, French and Japanese are known as syllable-timed because all the syllables are given roughly the same length of time when spoken. 

In English, unstressed syllables and words like 'a', 'an', 'and', 'the' are shortened or 'reduced' to make them quicker to say.

The result is that the words in a sentence which are key for understanding are more prominent while the less important words are less so. This then aids effective communication.

Knowing when and how to use the schwa sound will make your English sound more natural and fluent.

To improve the effectiveness of your business English, please contact Professional Voice on:

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