Some of English’s smallest words ruffle feathers on both sides of the Atlantic. Radio 4 listeners went up in arms over the overuse of filler word “so” on UK live radio and America eagerly awaited the release of “How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conservation” by the proclaimed University of Sydney linguist, Nick Enfield. Keeping that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the little words that are captivating our attention.
What Are Filler Words And Interjections?
What are filler and interjection words? A filler is a noise we make to allow time to think between words and sentences. They can also convey hesitation, uncertainty, or another emotion subtly and indirectly. In English, we often use “errr” or “umm.” An interjection is a word that gives a sentence heightened intonation. For example, “Holy cow!” or “Wow!” in English indicate surprise.
Fillers and interjections stand alone grammatically, meaning they can be used by themselves or in a sentence, but they do not modify other words. They’re also not part our written language, except when someone is writing dialogue. For this reason, their spellings vary greatly.
Fillers and interjections give speech authenticity and a colloquial touch. In fact, during script recordings for our lessons at Babbel, our native speakers have often deviated from the original text because they want to avoid dialogues that sound “stiff, unnatural and lacking in fluidity” without interjections or fillers.
How To Teach Fillers And Interjections
Filler and interjection words are almost always absent from traditional language curriculums, yet they’re crucial in every language. Knowing when to use “umm,” “er” or “yippee” — each meaning very different things — bridges the gap between beginners and fluent speakers.
So how should you learn fillers and interjections? Simple: Chat with the natives! Exposing yourself to real conversation ensures that you learn the natural pragmatics of a language that do not appear in traditional textbooks. This includes colloquialisms, jokes and emphasis that all languages pepper into conversation.
Lars, Editor for Russian in our Didactics team, explains the difficulties in teaching fillers and interjections: “Fillers and Interjections depend on context to carry any meaning. This makes teaching fillers and interjections with formal teaching methods, such as rote translations from textbooks and in classrooms, nearly impossible.”
For example, take the phrase “Aww, look at that puppy.” In one case, the speaker may refer to an adorable puppy nearby. In another, the speaker may be sad after seeing the puppy was poorly treated. In the first case, aww conveys allurement, while in the second, it conveys pity.
The Difficulties Of Learning These Words
Fillers and interjections are nearly always learned passively. At school, the focus is on vocabulary that we learn actively. Active vocabulary, however, is only a small portion of a language learner’s vocabulary. The majority of a learner’s lexicon comprises a lot of passive vocabulary, meaning the words we acquire through context.
As learners meet new words in various contexts, they begin to understand the words, but remain unable to recall them when speaking or writing. Gradually, after repeated encounters, the learner activates these words in their dialogue.
Birte Dreier, Project Manager for Danish and Italian in our Didactics team, speaks of her experience learning Danish. “Using fillers and interjections in a new language is a two stage process: Understanding where the word works and then using it. Learning Danish, I would listen to natives talking to each other, and try to insert fillers when I thought they would work. It was trial and error, but the more I listened, the more I seemed to know instinctively which words to use in which context.”
Why Real Life Conversations Are So Important
Second Language Acquisition research reveals that learning fillers and interjections is a natural outgrowth of immersion in real dialogue. In our busy lives, however, we don’t make time to watch a French film, read a German newspaper, or enroll in an intensive language course in Italy.
Learning fillers and interjections can only happen during real conversations in the language. That’s why Babbel prioritizes building learners’ capacity and confidence to engage in real conversations as quickly as possible.
Speaking to locals is intimidating. We stumble. We make mistakes. But the moment when you finally use a filler word in the correct context, or pull off a brilliant joke because of that one perfectly-placed interjection in another language is not merely motivating — it’ll make even the most timid tourist feel like a local.