It is something that causes profound problems in English. This is not just for students from other countries, but also for native learners.

Pedagogues and language theorists have been struggling for many years to find the Holy Grail of English language acquisition. Many agree that the answer lies somewhere in a strange upside-down ‘e’ symbol, which is formally known as the schwa.

Returning to our earlier topic of etymology, the word ‘schwa’ comes into the language via the Hebrew. It means, quite literally, “emptiness”.

Unfortunately for students, this “emptiness” is the dominant sound in English. This poses a particular challenge for those whose mother-tongues are dominated by strong vowels (such as Italian), or those who have very few vowels (such as Arabic).

The diagram below is the one most often used to show the relationship between the schwa and the primary vowel sounds. Italian is represented by the FLAGS at the far end of the arrows, and English by the English flags. This shows that a letter that is written in ‘a’ in Italian will sound very different to the way that it is pronounced in English, which sounds something like ‘uh’.

The ‘a’ in Italian will be big, just as the ‘e’ will be.

In English, however, most of the vowels will sound simply like a tired sigh.

The schwa is the sound that is used for most prepositions, articles, auxiliary and verbs.

This is why many English children will often write: “I can’t of done” instead of “I can’t have done”. In English, not only do both ‘of’ and ‘have’ have an identical pronunciation (which, for anyone who can read the phonetic alphabet is, /əv/), but – being a preposition and auxiliary verb – are unstressed.

So, where to begin?

The mind is an extraordinary organ, and neurons are extraordinary things. Like a muscle, the brain can be trained to hear sounds.

From a linguistic development perspective, all babies are born with the ability to hear all of the sounds that humans in any country make. However, even before they are born they start to prefer the phonemes of the language that their family speaks. Within the first year, the babies’ brain has learned to focus on these sounds, and it allows itself to forget the others.

The aim of the student is therefore to start to hear the schwa again.

“Once I could hear it, I could hear schwas everywhere,” a student once told me. “And different grammars became easier to understand.”

The BBC pronunciation series has some good examples of the correct pronunciation of the schwa, and there is a good article about the schwa here.

Many of the discussions about the schwa talk about ‘stressed time’, which is the other major key to developing good English listening and speaking skills, and which will be next week’s topic.