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SaturdayJanuary 24th, 2009
English Pronunciation Podcast 20-
Vowel Reduction in Unstressed Syllables
: Today's podcast teaches you how to use the vowels /ə / and /I/ in unstressed syllables to make your accent sound more like an American's.


In the past few podcasts we've been learning about syllable stress. We've learned the rules for determining which syllable of a word is stressed. We've also learned that in order to stress a syllable you make the vowel longer and raise your pitch.
But what about the unstressed syllable of a word?

When a syllable is unstressed the vowel changes quality the vowel is reduced- it's made shorter and usually we use the vowel /ə/," the schwa."

Putting It all Together

So this week, we're going to put it all together . We're going to use our knowledge of syllable stress and review vowel reduction so that the rhythm of our speech begins to flow and sound like a native speaker.

(Reduction means the act of making smaller)

Rule: When a vowel falls on an unstressed syllable, it's shorter and usually changes quality. It is reduced.

The focus of this week's lesson is:

  • Learning when and how to reduce vowels in English
  • Practicing vowel reduction to improve the rhythm and flow of your English pronunciation, making it more like a native speaker.

By making the right vowels long and the right vowels short, your accent will be more accurate and sound more natural.

Example: It's common to eat salad in Sweden.

Let's look at: common ... salad ... Sweden ...

Common has two syllables. The first syllable is stressed: /ka/.
Both syllables have the same vowel letter<o>.
However, notice the difference in vowel quality.

first <o>= /a/,
second <o> =/ə/

The second <o> pronounced /ə/ is an example of a reduced vowel.

Rule : When a vowel is reduced in English, very often it will be reduced to /ə/, the schwa.( this vowel was taught in podcasts 10-12.)
The reduced vowel will always fall on an unstressed syllable.

From podcast 14, we know that stress of "common" falls on the first syllable because common is a two syllable adjective.
Two syllable adjectives and nouns are usually stressed on the first syllable.

Example2: "salad"

Salad is a two syllable noun. According to the rules of stress, we stress the first syllable. (stress 2 syllable nouns on the first syllable)

Both syllables contain the same vowel letter: <a>.

However, notice how the vowel quality of the first <a> is different than the vowel quality of the second <a>.

first <a>= /æ/,
second <a> =/ə/

The second syllable is reduced and pronounced /ə / because it falls on the unstressed syllable.
Try listening for the long vowel /æ/ in the stressed syllable and the reduced vowel /ə / in the second syllable.

Example 3: "Sweden"

Sweden has two syllables.
Both syllables contain the same vowel letter<e>. But notice how the pronunciation of <e> is diiferent in each syllable.

first <e>= /i/,
second <e> =/ə/

The secoind <e> is reduced to /ə/ because it falls on the unstressed syllable.

* * Americans might use /I/ instead of /ə/

They might say salad: /sælId/ and Sweden: /SwidIn/

Either way is correct! You can reduce <a> <e> and <i> to /I/

Avoid this mistake: Sweden /Swidɛn/

Exercise: Listen and repeat the following words. Pay careful attention to vowel quality and length. Make the stressed syllables long and use /ə/ or /I/ on unstressed syllables.

common /kamən/

salad /sælæd/

Sweden /swidən/

It's common to eat salad in Sweden.

Exercise: Listen and repeat the following words. The first word contains the vowel letter in the stressed form. The second word contains it in on the unstressed syllable, so we use the vowel sound /ə/ or /I/

face /feIs/  surface / sɚfəs/

Vowel Letter           Full vowel, stressed             reduced vowel unstressed
<a>                          sand  /sænd/                         thousand /θauzənd /

Thousands of people in the sand

<e>                          Ken / kɛn/                         broken /broukən/

Ken's heart is broken

<i>                            ice      /aIs/                       justice /dʒəstəs/

Their system of justice is on thin ice.

<o>                          total   /toutəl/                       today /tədeI/

Here are todays totals.

 <u>                         super    /supɚ/                    support /səpɔɚt/

Do you support building more super highways?

Principle of English Pronunciation:
When a vowel is unstressed, we reduce it. The rhythm of English is an alternating rhythm.

short... long... short... long

America /əmɛrIkə/

camera /kæmIrə/

Washington /waʃIŋtən /

In future podcasts, we'll look at vowel reduction in longer words of three or more syllables.

Exercise Listen to a native speaker . Try Listening for the reduced vowels in words. Practice saying the words on your own. Make the stressed vowels long and the unstressed vowels short. Use /ə /or /I/

In time, your style of speaking will begin to change. You'll begin to adopt the rhythm of American speakers, the alternating rhythm of stressed and unstressed, short and long.

The key is practice ! Repetition and training.

Accent reduction is so much like learning a sport, dancing or singing. You have to do it in order to make changes!

In order to practice , you need the right tools!

Looking for more practice? I recommend Best Accent Training mp3s!

Any questions, comments or suggestions ?
Contact us at: contact@englishpronunciationpod.com

Thank you and see you next time!  


After practicing with Best Accent Training daily,
I can say that my English communication has improved 100%. "

- Domingo Ponce Rodriguez- - Marketing Manager USA (Spain)

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