Today I’m going to talk about English filler words! I’ll explain why we use filler words, why you should stop using them, and how to reduce the number of likes, ums, and you knows in your English speech.
This podcast, you know, is, like, going to discuss, um, filler words. Sorry… let me start again. This podcast is going to discuss filler words and tell you how (and why) to stop using them.
Although a slight exaggeration, you have probably heard English speakers using filler words similar to the ones I used in that earlier sentence.
All of these are examples of filler words. When we are nervous, struggling to think of what is next, or not fully concentrating, we can find ourselves using filler words.
There are two inspirations for this episode. Last year I was taking a Japanese class while a research student in Japan and there was a Filipino student in the class. Her Japanese was really good… but she kept saying eto (a Japanese filler word). And while her Japanese was great and the content of her speech amazing, the fact she kept saying filler words was distracting and annoying. I decided that I would do some research on filler words after that experience.
And second, I’ve noticed members of my conversation clubs using a lot of filler words and sounds (both English ones and ones form their own native languages) and I wanted to write something to help my subscribers reduce their use of filler words.
Filler words play an important role in speaking and we can find them in all languages. They can help give important information to your audience and give you the opportunity to think for an extra second or two.
When you overuse filler words, when your speech if full of likes, ums, and ahs, it can distract from your message and your discredit your image. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review the optimum (or best) frequency of using filler words is 1 per minute… and the average speaker used 5 a minute.
Today I want to give you all some advice on how to avoid overusing filler words. We’ll first look at filler words and why we use them. Then, I’ll explain why they can be a problem for English speakers (both native and non-native). And finally, I’ll give you some useful tips on how to reduce the amount of filler words in your English!
What is a Filler Word?
A filler word is a word or sound used in our speech to fill gaps or pauses in conversation. They are often used unconsciously meaning we don’t think about them or even realise we use them. When I listen back to some of the previous interview podcasts I’ve recorded, I’m always amazed how many filler words are used.
For me, the main filler words in my speech are so and well. And I tend to start sentences with these words. However, I think compared to many other English speakers I’ve managed to reduce the amount of filler words I use dramatically. Some people use them in every single sentence.
In English, common filler words include “um”, “ah”, “like”, “you know”, and “so.” But they can be found in all languages. In French, “euh”; in Spanish “bueno”; in Japanese “eto”. And in all languages they fill the same role – to plug the gaps in our speech when we are thinking or hesitating.
An important task for all people, not just language learners, is to identify your own personal filler words. What words or sounds do you use to fill gaps when you are speaking?
We can also describe these words as crutch words. Crutch has a few meanings including “a thing used for support or reassurance” – and this is the role of fillers words in our languages. Recognising these words is the first step towards reducing or even eliminating them from your speech.
As I said, most of the time filler words are used unconsciously – we don’t think about them. And they can become habit-forming – meaning we use them not because we need to but because it has become our habit. By recognising your own personal filler words you can focus on avoiding them or replacing them with more meaningful words or pauses.
Furthermore, recognizing your own filler words can also tell you information about your own personal speaking style. Do you say like a lot when you are nervous? Do you say um and ah a lot when you are talking about a specific topic? I do! I can talk about most things quite fluently… but when I talk about myself or when I disagree with someone, I start using a lot of filler words. Being aware of this can help you address these underlying problems.
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Why Do We Use Filler Words?
Filler words are not always bad – as I said at the beginning of the podcast the Harvard Business Review found that using 1 or 2 filler words a minute is the optimal amount. There are different reasons we use these words and sounds.
First, filler words can be used as a form of self-expression. We use them to provide an insight into our personalities, emotion, and moods. Using a word like “um” can indicate uncertainty or hesitation, while a word such as “like” can suggest a more casual or informal tone. Using filler words in this context provides an extra layer of meaning and help you to convey your meaning more easily!
Second, filler words are a tool to help us pause, slow down, and organise our thoughts while speaking. Especially for English learners, you may need to take a slightly longer time to find the right words, vocabulary, or sentence structure. Filler words can help fill that gap while you are thinking of the right words to continue your sentence. And by helping you slow down, filler words sometimes allow you to articulate your thoughts clearly and avoid mistakes.
Importantly, filler words are usually unconscious. We don’t think about using them… we just use them. Language learners will sometimes use their own languages filler words when speaking in English… which can sound strange. But this is because we don’t know we are using them! It is really important to recognise when and how you personally use filler words.
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Why Are Filler Words a Problem?
While filler words are not necessarily bad, overusing filler words can be a problem for everyone – native speakers and English learners.
First, filler words can detract from the content of your speech. Using too many filler words can make in difficult for listeners to understand what you are saying and retain information. All the hard work and effort you put into speaking English can be ruined by saying “like” or “you know” too often!
They are often a distraction, taking attention away from your speech and causing your audience to lose focus. Last week there was a famous YouTuber from the UK being interviewed on the news in the morning. I’m sure he was saying something really interesting, but I couldn’t concentrate because all I noticed was him saying “you know” in every single sentence. He was probably nervous, but once I noticed him saying “you know” that was all I noticed.
Second, overusing filler words can make you seem unprepared and uncertain. They make you seem less confident and less knowledgeable. If you are speaking English in an academic or business situation, your image is important. You need to show you are confident, credible, and reliable. But overusing filler words can ruin this image!
When I hear someone saying too many filler words, I tend to think they either lack confidence, they have not prepared well or adequately, or they do not understand the topic they are discussing. None of these are good characterisitcs or qualities.
Third, filler words can ruin the quality of your speech. They make you speech longer, less engaging, and reduce the efficiency of your words. If someone uses to many filler words, it can make their conversation partners bored and unfocused.
By reducing the amount of filler words you use, you can improve your image and credibility. You can be seen as more confident and well-prepared. You can keep the content of your speech clear and easy to understand. And you can make your speech more efficient.
How can you reduce the amount of filler words that you use?
How to Stop Using Filler Words?
Now I’m going to give you all some useful tips to help reduce the amount of filler words you use in your English.
Relax – Many people use filler words when they are nervous or anxious. If you can change your state of mind, you can relax and be less nervous, you will naturally use less filler words. I know using English can be stressful for many of you listening, but try to become more confident and less anxious.
(I would recommend joining my conversation groups or attending language exchanges where you can speak English regularly and build confidence – I got the idea for this episode by noticing the improvements in our regular attendees English)
Pause – this is what I have trained myself to do. Pausing is a better habit than using many filler words. It will let you think and collect your thoughts, and you don’t need to say anything. Take a few moments to organise things in your head, then carry on talking – and a short pause is much less distracting than “you know, like, um.”
Slow Down – you don’t need to speak fast. Slow down and speak deliberately. Think about what you are going to say – this has been the most effective way for me to avoid using filler words. I concentrate when I speak – everything I say is deliberate. And this means I have reduced filler words when I’m speaking.
Record Yourself – Recording Thinking in English 3 times a week for the last 2 years has made me really aware of the way I speak. I really notice the filler words I use regularly – and this is because I listen to myself speaking a lot. You should try the same! Record yourself talking about something or giving a presentation, and see how many filler words you use (or find any other issues or problems).
Again, filler words are unconscious and we don’t notice when we use them…. But we do use them all the time! Recording yourself can make this clear.
Become Aware – recording yourself is just one of the ways to become aware of your speaking habits. Concentrating or speaking deliberately, or talking with an English teacher, are also good methods. Once you become aware of your use of filler words, it is so much easier to reduce your use of them.
Find Your Problems – This is connected to awareness, and I’ve mentioned it previously, but identify your own personal filler words. What do you say? Like, ah, um, you know? When do you say them? When you are nervous? Talking about something awkward? Find the problems…. Then you can solve them!
Don’t panic about being perfect – and finally… don’t worry about being perfect. We all use filler words – and like I mentioned earlier a few every minute can actually be good! They let you organise your thoughts and help convey messages. Perfection is a terrible goal because it doesn’t exist. Instead, just focus on being aware and reducing your filler words!
Hopefully after listening to today’s episode, you will be able to better identify your own personal filler words and be able to reduce your use of them! By reducing filler words you will become clearer and seem more confident and well-prepared!
What filler words do you regularly use? (I use “so” and “well” a lot)