So, Are Fillers Okay to Use When, Um, Learning a Foreign Language?

Fillers are everywhere: they’re the ums, uhs, and likes that sneak their way into our speech, often times without us even realizing it. Indeed, fillers, also known as disfluencies, carry no semantic value, but they are used abundantly in natural speech, and are different in each language. Despite the bad rap that fillers get from schoolmarms and speech coaches, it’s important for language learners to acquaint themselves with the fillers in their language of study — nothing gives you away as a foreigner quite like saying, “Yo quiero, um, un helado.”

Perhaps ironically, learning the disfluencies in your language of study will actually make your speech more fluent. Non-native speakers in particular will encounter moments in which they need to fill the silence while they search for vocabulary, and fillers are an excellent way to do so without creating an awkward pause. But most textbooks don’t consider fillers as worthy of study, so it’s hard to find good information on how to incorporate fillers into your language learning. Here, we’ll take a look at fillers in several languages, which will hopefully, um, give you a better sense of how fillers are used cross-linguistically.

Fillers in Different Languages

ENGLISH: um, uh, like, y’know, so, well, just

English has a variety of fillers which can be used in several different discourse contexts. For example, the words so and well are often used to initiate a sentence, as in the following examples:

            – So, do you think using fillers is important?

            – Well, native speakers use fillers a lot, so I’d say they are pretty important.

Other fillers, such as like and you know (shortened colloquially as y’know), can be used almost anywhere in a sentence. They’re also often used in conjunction with each other, as in the following example:

– I want to, y’know, like, learn a lot of different languages.

In English, the most common fillers are um and uh, which are used as pauses between words, or as indications that the speaker has not yet finished talking. Interestingly, a recent study from the University of Rochester found that English speakers are more likely to pay attention to unfamiliar objects if the word “uh” is used before stating the object’s name. Thus, words like “um” and “uh” indicate to speakers that something unfamiliar is about to happen, so they’d better pay extra attention.

GERMAN: ähm, äh, wie, weisste, mal, ja

German-language fillers (“Füllwörter” in German) bear significant resemblance to those in English. For example, the German equivalent to um and uh are ähm and äh (respectively), which are pronounced almost exactly the same. German speakers also uses the pronoun wie in the same way that English speakers use the word “like”. In fact, German even has an almost identical version of “you know” — weisst du, which is shortened as weisste in the same way that “you know” is shortened to “y’know”.

Some German fillers are used to have a softening effect. For example, the word mal — while it carries no meaning itself — is used to make commands seem less abrupt and more polite, as in the following example:

– Steh mal auf. (Stand up.)

Likewise, other German fillers are used to carry an intensifying effect. The German word ja means “yes”, but is often used as a filler to emphasize something or strengthen one’s convictions. The 2012 film Das ist ja Leben selbst! (“This is Indeed Life Itself!”) perfectly exemplifies this use of the word ja: it makes the statement forceful and emphatic.

Clueless movie image

If Clueless were a German film, the characters would constantly utter “wie” instead of “like”. Image via Dailymotion

SPANISH: ehm, bueno, pues, este, como, a ver

In Spanish, some fillers (“muletillas” in Spanish) are similar in form and function to those in English. The equivalent to um is ehm, which is pronounced more like “ehm” than “um” (try to stop saying “um” to avoid sounding like a gringo). Also, some fillers, such as bueno and a ver, fulfill the same role as “so” and “well” in English, in that they’re often used to start a sentence:

            – Bueno, por qué es importante aprender las muletillas? (So, why is it important to learn fillers?)

            – A ver, escúchame y te lo explico bien. (Well, listen to me and I’ll explain it to you.

The various regional dialects of Spanish use different fillers. For example, the fillers that are used in Argentina are different from those that are used in Spain. In Argentina, casual utterances often begin with che (roughly translated as “hey”), whereas che does not exist in Spain. Similarly, Spain uses the filler pues (“well”), whereas Argentina does not, instead opting to use bueno instead.

Further, excessive use of certain Spanish fillers can be suggestive of certain social information. If your speech is littered with o sea (and tipo if you’re in Argentina), you’re at risk of being categorized as a fresa (Mexico) or a cheto — a stereotype of a braindead, bubblegum-chewing teenager who cares about fashion, gossip, and little else. An English-language equivalent would be overuse of the word “like”.

JAPANESE: eeto (えーと), ano (あのう), sono (その), ee (ええ), nanka (なんか)

Japanese, which bears little relation to English, has very different fillers. The most common ones are eeto (えーと) and ano (あのう), which are used like “um” and “uh”. In fact, you can extend them to match the length of the pause, so if you really need to stop and think, you can say eeeeto or anooooo. The filler nanka ( なんか) is used especially when you are searching for the next word, and can be considered a synonym of the word “like”.

In Japanese, speech without fillers can come off as overly formal or harsh. Thus, using fillers makes you seem more conversational and personal. This is in tune with a recent study conducted in English regarding phone survey interviews. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that the most successful interviewers (that is, those who were most successful at keeping respondents on the phone to answer questions) used fillers such as “um” and “uh” moderately. Notably, they were more successful than those who made no pauses at all, whose speech sounded overly scripted and robotic. Thus, conservative use of fillers seems to lend credibility to speakers, rather than hurt it.

Talking on the phone

Phone interviewers were more successful when their speech contained the occasional “um”. Image via Rhoda Baer / Wikipedia

Of course, there is a time and a place for fillers: if you’re about to give a speech in front of the UN, for instance, try to keep the ums, ähms, ehms, and えーとs to a minimum. But in casual conversation, using fillers can not only help you appear approachable and conversational, but can actually increase your fluency, by filling your silences with words that native speakers would use. Try to kick your habit of saying “um” and “uh”, and instead adopt the fillers that you hear from native speakers in your language of study.

What fillers are used in your language? What other fillers would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments!

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Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. Check out their free language level tests and other resources on their website. Visit their Facebook page or contact [email protected] with any questions.

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  • Show Comments (38)

  • Kass McGann

    In Irish, they use the English filler words “y’know” and “like”. This first sounded very strange to me. But when you realise that many Irish speakers spoke English first, it makes a lot of sense. I’ve been a proponent of using filler words/sounds to make your speech more natural ever since we learned them in my University Japanese class. I sounded native speaking Japanese because I spoke it the way they did, and fillers are a big proponent of that. I wish you could find them in the dictionary for every language!

    • Paul Mains

      I agree, Kass! That’s so interesting about Irish — must be a little jarring — but as you said, makes sense given that most spoke English first.

    • Totally agree! It’s interesting that fillers (and conversational bridges more generally) are not usually formally introduced in language learning textbooks. The only textbook series that usually introduces them thoroughly is the “Using [Language]: A Guide to Contemporary Usage” series. I’ve written a review about the series, which I very much like. Feel free to check it out! http://www.lingholic.com/reviews/using-a-guide-to-contemporary-usage-series-review/

  • Jason Awuku

    I’m learning Russian. What would be the filler words in this language?

    • Майкл

      some Russian fillers are:
      понимаешь? (“understand?”). ну – well. типа – well, kinda. Как бы- sort of, like. Слышь, y’know (super literate translation- listen) Блин- damn it/s**t (it’s considered mild profanity, but is not of offence. super literate translation is pancake(singular) where as “Блины” is plural pancakes. Блин- can also be considered an equivalent of people in English using sugar instead of s**t but is not to rude to use as a filler word. these are just a few

      • Jason Awuku

        Спасибо (thanks) Майкл, for the tips!

      • Thanks for these! Very cool

      • flootzavut

        блин is my all time favourite filler/mild swear. I love that you can yell “Pancake!” in Russian for a swear word, I find it charming.

        I keep meaning to start using ‘pancake’ as a filler word in English just because I feel like life would always be better with added pancake.

        I think ну is my most (over)used filler when I speak Russian.

    • I would add to this list ‘вот’ and ‘вот так’ which are used extensively 🙂

  • Neil Cook

    Could someone show me some filler words for Hungarian? I have heard some sounds from native speakers, which I try to imitate and use in a similar way, but I haven’t been able to identify any words as yet

    • I don’t know much about Hungarian unfortunately, but if somebody reading those lines does, I’d love if they could share some Hungarian fillers with the rest of us! In fact, it’d be neat to have a page with useful fillers in dozens of languages, it would make a great reference.

    • This is ripped straight from a Wikipedia article, but it could be a good place to start and watch out for with native speakers: “In Hungarian, filler sound is ő, common filler words include hát, nos (well…) and asszongya (a variant of azt mondja, which means “it says here…”).”

      It’s especially hard to get people to tell you which fillers they use, as many aren’t even aware that they use them! Wish I knew more about Hungarian. If I find more info on this, I’ll be sure to let you know.

    • Beatrix T

      I’d add a few comments to Paul M’s list, and some other examples (I’m a Hungarian native speaker):

      “nos” is quite a formal filler, in friendly conversations you would mostly use it to behave in a mock-formal fashion.

      “öööö” is very common, and you can put together as many “öööö”s as you like, depending on how long a pause you need.

      “izé” is also quite prevalent, it roughly means “that thing/concept/anything whose name I don’t remember now”, for example, you can say: “Add ide azt az izét” (Give me that what-do-you-call-it.), or you can use it anywhere in the sentence without any clear meaning at all.

      “tudod” (you know) is also widely used, together with formal version “tudja”.

      “szóval” or “szóval akkor” (roughly: so) is often used at the beginning of sentences.

      “na” is a filler sometimes indicating slight impatience or annoyance (“na mondd már” – “say it already, won’t you”), or it can add a little more emphasis to a call of action: “na menjünk” – “let’s go then”.

      I’m sure we have many more, but these are the ones jumping to my mind right now.

    • flopsicle

      Some popular ones are ‘hát’ similar to well, ‘öö’ (like uhh), and ‘öhm’ (umm)

  • That’s a very interesting topic – thanks Paul. Fillers are pretty much what separates people who are very, very good at a language and those who are fluent. They’re so difficult to learn, though, because they are used is no many different contexts. How you use them can also determine the tone of what you’re saying so you have to be careful! And a lot of them don’t actually have equivalents/they don’t translate literally into other languages. The best way to master them, as you say, is to get involved in real conversations with native speakers or proficient users of your target language.

    • That’s true. Although, to be sure, in languages part of the same family, fillers can typically be translated to a certain extent. In my native French (from Canada), we tend to say “ben” (shortened form of “bien”) for “well” in English, and “comme” for “like”. Such fillers are very often used in similar contexts as they are in English, but of course, one shouldn’t just assume that. It’s crucial to listen to how native speakers speak and repeat after them. Unfortunately, though, recordings that come with most language learning textbooks do not typically sound very natural and so they are not a good resource to learn fillers.

      • I love the French ‘bon bah’ – not sure if people use it in Canada as well. Definitely not one you would hear on a language learning recording!

    • Thanks for the comment, Agnieszka! I totally agree. Another thing is that they often have connotations that we’re 0% conscious of. For example, “um” usually signals are longer pause than “uh”, and is more indicative of missing information on the part of the speaker (whereas “uh” is a more intentional, controlled pause in order to preserve the fluidity of the utterance). Couldn’t find a pdf of the original paper but they allude to it here: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97983

      • You’re absolutely right, Paul. The same is true for words such as ‘like’ – depending on where you place it in the sentence, it can connote many different things (the tone of what you’re saying or even your level of education). It’s funny how little ‘non-words’ like that can play such a big role in language!

  • Jonathan Schatz

    Anybody know what the common Korean fillers are? Sometimes I could really use those! Courtney

    • Yes, there are lots! For example: 그러니까, 글쎄(요), 저, 그거, 있잖아(요), 뭐, etc.

      There’s a really great book that covers all Korean fillers and conversational bridges called “Using Korean: A Guide to Contemporary Usage.” You can find it on Amazon here: http://amzn.to/1FzExow

      Hope this is useful!

      • Jonathan Schatz

        Thanks!

  • Nate Tapsak

    I so badly need Polish fillers. >_<

    • Saim Dušan Inayatullah

      I’d say the most common one is “no”.

  • Saim Dušan Inayatullah

    Catalan: ahm, vull dir (“I mean”), o sigui (“in other words”)
    Serbian: ovaj (this), ah (schwa sound), mislim (“I think, mean”)
    Polish: no (“yes/well”)

  • Diego Saavedra

    Could somebody give me some Czech fillers? I just remember to have heard ”no” and ”tak” during my stay over there, some others would be highly appreciated. Díky.

  • Kim Norberg

    Any common fillers in Italian that I could use? 🙂

    • Check out this useful thread on the WordReference website, it should come in handy!

      http://forum.wordreference.com/threads/filler-words.116825/

      Cheers,

      Sam

      • Kim Norberg

        Thank you very much!

    • Lorenzo

      You could say among others “diciamo”, “bé” (I’m Italian myself)

      • Kim Norberg

        “Beh” was the only filler I knew in Italian from before. When do you use the filler “diciamo”? 🙂

        • Lorenzo

          In fact we use it pretty much everywhere

          • Kim Norberg

            Is there any English word it is similar to in meaning? Or can I just put it anywhere in a sentence just like with “Beh”? 🙂

    • StellaBarbone

      “Allora” which is “well” or “so”.

      • Kim Norberg

        Thank you! I recognize it! My teacher used to say it very often in class 🙂

  • In Urdu and Hindi we use “to” (تو / तो ) to mean “so.” as in “so…..where are we going?”

    Also “matlab” (مطلب / मतलब ) meaning “meaning.”

    We also frequently extend the final vowel of a word to “convert” it into a filler:

    میں نے کہا کہہہہہہہ…وہاں نہیں جانا ہے
    मैैं ने कहा कििि….वहां नहीं जाना है…
    Main ne kaha keeeeeeeh…wahan nahin jana hai.
    (I said thaaaaaaaaat..we’re not going there.)

    Arabic uses يعني (ya’ni) incessantly. It literally means “means” but is used as a dollar in lots of contexts.

  • martinasardocardalano

    Some Italian fillers: praticamente (in practice), in teoria (in theory), ehm, tipo (like)… 🙂

  • Noémie Serrano

    Very interesting topic indeed! I was very surprised the first time I heard a foreign friend of mine use a French filler. I don’t really like hearing those coming out of the mouth of a native French speaker (even though I use them too), but I must admit that hearing them from someone who is learning my native language was quite impressive!

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