Multilinguish: The World Of, Um, Filler Words

In this episode of Multilinguish, we explore how filler words in the world’s languages are more than just linguistic fluffery.
Multilinguish: The World Of, Um, Filler Words

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Um, uh, like, you know — speech-policing schoolteachers and public speaking experts will tell you to avoid these stalling words at all costs if you want to sound more eloquent. But there’s a reason trying to snuff out every “um” and “like” from your speech is harder than it sounds. As it turns out, these filler words are much more natural than you’d think. In fact, they’re often considered an essential part of conversation.

In this episode of Multilinguish, we explore filler words from a scientific standpoint — what purpose do they serve, and why do many linguists say we can’t just overlook them as simple errors in speech production? Plus, we take a look at filler words as they appear in the world’s languages besides English and analyze what their presence across the globe can tell us about the universality of the ways we communicate. 

Multilinguish: The World Of, Um, Filler Words

In the first part of the episode, we talk about the science of filler words — when, how and why we use them in our everyday speech. Content producer David Doochin is joined by senior content producer Steph Koyfman to discuss what these stalling and stuttering words are from a linguistic perspective and what purpose they serve in our conversations.

Later in the episode, we discuss what form these filler words take around the world and what they can tell us about commonalities in communication across speakers of many different languages. We hear from James Douglas, a young man who had firsthand experience with filler words in an international setting — and the all-too-common pushback against them.

Show Notes

This episode was produced by David Doochin and edited by Brian Rosado. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. Special thanks to James Douglas for taking the time to speak with us for this episode.

How To Stall (And Instantly Sound More Fluent) In 7 Different Languages | Babbel Magazine
It’s Like, You Know, Science: Why We Use Filler Words When We Speak | Babbel Magazine
Fillers And Interjections: What These Little Words Mean For Fluency | Babbel Magazine

Transcript

David Doochin: From the language app, Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m David Doochin. Um, uh, like, uh, you know, in school, around linguistically nitpicky adults, in informal settings, many of us were taught that in order to sound more eloquent, we should avoid as many of these stuttering and stalling words as possible. But what if they were actually totally, uh, like normal. Turns out, we all use these filler words more than we realize, even us here at Babbel.

Babbel Employee 1: In like the ’60s, there were a lot of like really, really, you know, like most supermodels were like French or like, (laughs), you know, from, from Europe.

Babbel Employee 2: I think maybe it’s ’cause I think of like American English and how there’s like different like dialects or like—out of Southern, or like there’s people from the Midwest.

Babbel Employee 3: Yeah. I took a trip to Paris a couple of summers ago and, um, I try to have like these phrases learned just so I could interact, you know, basic communication type stuff with, uh, with different establishments. Um-

David Doochin: So, even in our recorded videos and podcast episodes, you can hear that we subconsciously use ums, uh, like, and, you know, more than we’d like to think that we are when we’re actually talking. But that’s the thing, no matter how much we try to stop ourselves from using these stalling words, they tend to make their way back into our speech. Maybe, maybe even, even if we don’t want them to.
This episode of Multilinguish is about filler words. First, we’ll explore some of the linguistic science behind why we use filler words like these and what they are. And then after the break, we’ll see just how universal and utilized they are in languages foreign and familiar to us.

Before we get started, don’t forget to rate and review Multilinguish wherever you get your podcasts. And be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. Joining me today is content producer, Steph Koyfman. Hi Steph.

Steph Koyfman: Hi David.

David Doochin: So, you and I have both written for Babbel Magazine about this exact topic. I figured you’d be a great guest for this episode.

Steph Koyfman: Oh, thank you.

David Doochin: What do you think of when I say filler words or stalling words? Uh, what types of words are we, are we talking about and what types of people do you typically think of using them and, and in what situations?

Steph Koyfman: Well, honestly, I think all kinds of people use them. I mean, I think the stereotype is that you have like a California mall girl who says like a lot, but, um, as you mentioned before, I mean, it’s, it’s something that shows up in literally every language. And I think that there might be more generational inflections where certain age groups of people use or like lean towards one type of filler word more than another. But, um, it’s kind of just a feature of how people talk.

David Doochin: Yeah, I would agree. I think if you pay closeup attention to the speech of most people in your life, you could pick out maybe not the same exact filler word, I think everyone takes their own sort of, um, spin on it, but we, we all use them. I mean, probably using them right now without even realizing in this, in this more formal podcast situation. I know in my life I’ve been called out for using filler words like, um, or like so many times.

I mean, I’m thinking back to high school when I was in the mock trial team. So, that’s a very formal setting where you’re presenting a case in front of, you know, these real professional judges and everyone who is watching you and you want to make sure you come off as confident and that you know exactly what you’re saying. And if you say words like, um, uh, like if you’re kind of scrambling to, to find your thoughts, it can come off as unprepared. Um, there I go saying, um. You know, it’s, it’s harder to, to notice when you’re not paying attention, but when you start to tune in you, you start to think, oh my gosh, this is such a, such a prevalent, uh, thing that I do is, is filling time and space in my speech with words that are generally frowned upon in these more formalized context, you know.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: Do you have any personal experiences with using filler words or insights into maybe how you use them?

Steph Koyfman: And I’ve definitely been, um, called out for using them too much. My parents get on my case all the time. Um, and it wasn’t actually, until I got into podcasting that, um, I started to get kind of like feedback from, I mean, this has happened like all of two times in my life, but I think it’s noteworthy. Um, one of the very first podcast episodes I ever appeared on was my friend’s podcast. And I had a stranger slide into my DMs with like a, kind of like a mean criticism sandwich, like wrapped in two compliments. And it was so passive, aggressive and unnecessary, but she was basically like, “I loved your podcast. Just wanted to let you know that you, you said like so many times that I had to stop listening after like six minutes and I couldn’t even listen to you talk, but figured you want to know ’cause we all love to improve.” And it was just, I don’t know, why are people like that? (laughs).

David Doochin: That was so unnecessary. I wo- that would make me so self-conscious and I would never be able to forget something like that.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. Well it also, it also, you could tell that she was just like angry at me for talking like that, but she didn’t want to make it sound mean and it just ended up sounding worse. But, um, there was also, I think, I think here on Multilinguish, um, we got like a, a rating right after one of my episodes dropped and the feedback was like, says like too much. And it didn’t say who, but I was like, “I know that’s about me.” You know now.

David Doochin: Well, I think… I think we’re all used to being called out in some form or fashion for using words like these, these filler words, these stalling words, that to us, we don’t even try to use, like I’ve been saying it’s not something that I’m consciously choosing to do. And I, I wouldn’t want to annoy someone if I’m, uh, talking on a podcast and they hear me say like, or they hear me say um, that’s not intentional. But I think it speaks to something about the way that we formulate thoughts and the way we convey ideas and express ourselves is that sometimes we depend on these words because we’re making it up as we go and we’re being more spontaneous, and we need a little bit more, uh, cushion, you know.

Steph Koyfman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Doochin: We, we aren’t ready to just come out with an idea off the bat, we need a little bit of extra padding to, to get our ideas out there. And that, that to me seems totally normal. I feel like most people would agree.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. I know.

David Doochin: But—

Steph Koyfman: Um, I’ve been kind of thinking about how, like, there’s this weird balance that you need to strike, because if you completely scrubbed your speech of filler words, it would sound really unnatural and like, you were just like reading off a page. But then if you use them too much, people get mad at you and like they find it overly distracting. So, like, what’s, I don’t know. It’s, I wonder if it’s one of those things where we all kind of, um, sometimes, sometimes you dislike things about other people that you know are true about yourself. So, it’s like, we all, we all use these words and why is it that we find it so greeting in other people?

David Doochin: Yeah, I think it’s textbook projection—

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: … where we can’t accept that maybe we’re flawed in X, Y or Z way. And we also judge ourselves, judge people who use filler words, for example, one of many examples of a reason we might projection. This isn’t supposed to be a psychology podcast, but I think it’s a really good point you bring up where we’re all taught in school, in really formal settings to avoid these words just as much as possible. So, we kind of have this conditioning to judge people when they use them. And that includes ourselves, whether we know that we’re doing it, but it makes it easy to kind of point to someone else and say, “Oh, you’re not following this very strict societal rule—

Steph Koyfman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Doochin: … that we’re all supposed to know. And so therefore I feel an obligation to put you down or to call you out for it.” When in reality, maybe I’m using, if I’m the one calling you out stuff, maybe I’m using filler words just as much, but it’s just not, it’s not a sort of situation where I’m tuned into it as much. And I just, I want you to feel lesser than so that I can feel better than. And this gets into a whole other can of worms about, you know, societal dynamics and, um, how language kind of plays into people’s relationships. And, uh, we could—

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: … talk extensively about that.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. I don’t know. I kind of, I wonder if, because so many of us were subjected to the grammar police as children that we then kind of want to become grammar police for other people.

David Doochin: Yeah. Maybe it gives us a sense of power too.

Steph Koyfman: Could be.

David Doochin: Well, I think it’s important for us to kind of talk about the science behind these filler words so that we, you and I, and our audience can get a better context for what they are and why they’re actually not that crazy, why they’re not abnormal, why we shouldn’t necessarily feel the need to call them out because they actually might be, as we’ll learn are really helpful part of conversation that we don’t want to do without.

So, I’ll start off by saying that back in the day, you know, decades ago, there was a school of linguists who believed that these filler words are kind of nothing more than just verbal disfluencies as Noam Chomsky would call them. Uh, he would also say that they were maybe errors in, in applying knowledge of language or what you want to say into actual conversation, actual performance. So, it’s like something’s getting caught or, or mixed up between the thought of what you want to say and your production of that very thought, which makes sense. I mean—

Steph Koyfman: Hmm.

David Doochin: … we kind of view stalling as maybe like a brain fart or like a mind flub, uh, which makes a lot of sense when we’re confused, when we’re trying to, to come up with the right thought, our brain isn’t really working on 100% capacity. But there are other scientists who are saying, wait, that might not be the whole story. It’s not just that these verbal disfluencies are errors or mistakes, but they actually serve a really important and a central role in conversation. So, I’m going to bring up a few different, um, areas of research from a couple different professors of psychology and linguistics who have a lot to say about this exact topic. Um, and feel free to stop me if you have questions or you have something you want to, to chime in, because you’ve also—

Steph Koyfman: Yeah, yeah.

David Doochin: … written a lot about this for Babbel Magazine. Um, so there are two psychology professors, Jean Fox Tree of University of California, Santa Cruz, and Herbert Clark of Stanford University who think that these stalling words like, um, uh, like, you know, carry much more meaning than the other old school linguists give them credit for. So, they refer to them as conversation managers that serve as important placeholders and listening cues for conversations.

So, they’re kind of, their theme is that these stalling words kind of regulate the flow of conversation. So, instead of me having to indicate to you that, “Hey, Steph, I’m done talking, it’s your turn to talk,” because conversation is a very symbiotic sort of relationship, it depends on your knowing when to start talking, and that also depends on you knowing when I’m done talking. That’s when we, that’s why filler words come in, uh, and plays such an important role. It’s that when I’m not done speaking, maybe I haven’t really formulated my thought entirely, but I know that my is not finished and I want to indicate that to you.

Steph Koyfman: Right, right.

David Doochin: That’s when I’m going to use, throw out a word like, uh, or, um, or maybe even draw out the vowel in a word that I’m saying. So, if I’m doing something like, um, well I’m talking, and—

Steph Koyfman: It’s kind of like when someone’s texting you and the little speech bubble pops up and you can see that they’re typing.

David Doochin: Yeah. And it’s a—

Steph Koyfman: (laughs)

David Doochin:

… great way to know, okay, it’s not quite my turn yet. I could say something, but that might be interrupting. I want to make sure that— the person I’m talking to has the full space to kind of get their thought out.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: So, this is the other school of thought that these conversation managers, these stalling words that we would otherwise maybe dismiss are really, really important. So, if we look at some of the quantitative data behind this research, we could learn a lot more about just how prevalent these filler words are. So, I mentioned Herbert Clark of Stanford University, and some of his research says that it’s pretty natural to become stuck mid-sentence while you’re speaking if you look at the fact that we produce on average between 120 and 150 words per minute. So, that’s about two to two and a half words per second during a normal conversation. At that rate, it’s probably only natural that we experienced a few stops and starts. We’re speaking really, really quickly, and we all know our brain sometimes has a hard time keeping up with our speech and vice versa, but it’s not a one-to-one match. And as I’m sure we all know.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. And I kind of feel like it’s, it, it kind of buys you some time as a speaker and also for your listener, it kind of gives your listener a chance to catch up and process what you’re saying.

David Doochin: Exactly.

Steph Koyfman: If that, if that makes sense. Like, um, I feel like the people who, uh, speak well have mastered the art of the dramatic pots to kind of, um, let their words sink in a little bit more, but not all of us are that sophisticated. So, we use filler words instead.

David Doochin: Yeah. We can all be great orators, but in the meantime, we can signal, “Hey, I’m still thinking about what I want to say. If you’ll give me the chance to say it and let me keep the spotlight on me during this conversation for this one turn—

Steph Koyfman: Right.

David Doochin: … maybe I’ll come up with something really great that’ll keep this conversation moving forward.” I mean, that’s just how conversation works, and we don’t even think about it like that. It kind of just—

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: … happens.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: And I think that’s one of the best arguments for, for making the claim that these filler words are pretty natural and pretty normal is that we all use them without realizing. And we, we’ve all had extremely successful conversations, however you measure success. But I would say that most conversations I have of course use filler words and they get from point A to point B. You know, I’m still able to have a really productive discussion with someone, even if my mind is racing a mile a minute, and I have all these thoughts that I want to get out, I’m able to do it, and I’m also able to help regulate the flow of conversation, um, using these filler words as well.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. And if, if you think about it, I mean, it’s not like we write seamlessly either. We pause, and we think about what word we want to use. And it, you know, I— I feel like, um, we don’t, we don’t ever produce language in a way that’s completely seamless, even if you don’t hear the, the sort of thought process that goes into it.

David Doochin: I totally agree. Writing is, uh, an interesting point because it does let us stop and really think about what we want to say.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: But you mentioned texting earlier. When I see someone texting really fast and that speech bubble or that typing bubble comes up, that means that it’s kind of like a conversation, I’m waiting for them to finish their turn. I know that there’s some sort of indicator that the conversation hasn’t turned to me yet, uh—

Steph Koyfman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Doochin: … and in writing that is this text bubble that pops up, that can cause anxiety if we think that someone’s going to say something. We’ve all been in those conversations where it’s kind of tense and, and we’re waiting for someone to, to get out what they have to say. And we’re, we’re waiting on that, that typing bubble to turn into an actual bubble. And that could, that kind of reflects what a, a conversation, a spoken conversation is like to me.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: Well, I’m going to tell you another piece of data and tell me what you think of it. Um, there’s— uh, a linguist named Mark Liberman from the University of Pennsylvania who estimates that between 6 and 10 percent of our natural speech is filler words alone. And that seems like a lot to me.

Steph Koyfman: That seems low honestly.

David Doochin:

But then—

Steph Koyfman: But (laughs), yeah.

David Doochin: Yeah. It still is, that’s like anywhere between one-in-20ish to one-in10 words that we speak. And now I’m starting to think, okay, I’m starting to really tune into my own speech and think, is that true? Do I do that much? But I think that’s, I mean, that could be really, really true. I don’t know for every person it’s probably different, but when you hear a stat like that, it makes you think, okay, these filler words are way more prevalent than we give them credit for it. We tend to only give weight to words of substance or what we would classify as words of substance, but filler words are so, so prevalent. And they really are peppered throughout our speech, maybe more than we realize.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: So, there’s another professor of linguistics that the University of Sydney over in Australia who wrote a book called How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation, and he calls these filler or stalling words, “traffic signals that regulate the flow of social interaction.” And I think that’s a really—

Steph Koyfman: I like that.

David Doochin: … good way, yeah, I think that’s a really great way to capture kind of what we’ve been talking about. It’s like, I’m, we’re having a conversation, I’m speaking, I can’t quite get to the point yet, but I know that I will, because conversation is a spontaneous process and it’s improvised in a lot of cases. And so, we both have this understanding that beyond the substance of what we’re saying, there’s kind of this infrastructure to conversation that we want, um, to go as smoothly as possible. And so it’s, it’s this interdependent process where we both have to depend on each other to make it successful. And that’s what filler words help us do. They create the space for us to, to take turns productively and, and really convey and express our thoughts.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: Okay. So, before we go to the break, let’s try to think of a couple of contexts in which we use filler words and see them a lot. And then on the other side of the coin, contexts in which we don’t see them a lot, um, and where we are told to try to avoid them too by teachers, by adults, by society, whatever. So, what do you think of, what do you think of situations where we might hear these filler words like, um, uh? Um, one thing we’ve been talking—

Steph Koyfman: Okay.

David Doochin: … a lot about is spontaneous speech, conversation—

Steph Koyfman: Right.

David Doochin: … that’s unrehearsed, um, where we’re not exactly sure where we’re going when we start talking, but we get there eventually.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. I mean, I mean, basically anytime you’re asking someone to speak off the cuff, I think you’re going to wind up in a situation where that kind of more natural sounding speech comes out.

David Doochin: I agree. I think it’s also probably more prevalent around groups of li- similarly aged peers, especially young people.

Steph Koyfman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Doochin: I mean, that might just be a stereotype, but I think it’s a stereotype for a reason.

Steph Koyfman: That’s true. Um, I feel like there is something kind of, um, inherently relaxed about speaking with filler words and, um, in a relaxed setting, like when you’re among your friends versus you might, you might try to sound a little bit more buttoned up around your boss for instance.

David Doochin: So, that’s a great point. Um, situations where you need to kind of be more composed—

Steph Koyfman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Doochin: … or, or stoic, those tend to call for rooting out or eradicating as many filler words as you can. So, when—

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: … someone wants to project confidence or project that they know what they’re doing, project preparation, for example, then that’s a perfect instance where we would see people trying to maybe monitor their speech.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: So, I think we’ve done a really good job of identifying the situations in which we see a lot of filler words, um, and talking about what they are and what they mean and why they actually serve potentially a linguistic purpose beyond just representing some sort of error in thought, uh, thought to speech production, something like that. Because there’s a lot of science that points to the idea that these filler words are way more common than we think they are, and that they serve a purpose that we can’t actually have meaningful conversations without them in most situations.

David Doochin: So, we’re going to head to a break, but when we come back, we’ll talk about filler words in other languages that we are familiar with maybe, or ones that we’ve never heard. Uh, but we’ll see that there are implications for, for speakers of all languages worldwide when it comes to filler words. We will return shortly.

Dylan Lyons: Hey, it’s Dylan, Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. Our marketing team wants you to know that Babbel teaches you 14 languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, and more. And the app is created by real language teachers. You’ll learn how to have conversations in real life situations like getting to know your neighbors, or maybe telling them to put on their mask and stay six feet away from you. Either way, we’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50 percent off of three months subscription. New customers can get this offer by visiting babbel.com/podcast. That’s B-A-B-B-E-L.com/podcast. Now back to the show.

David Doochin: Welcome back to Multilinguish. So, we’ve been talking exclusively about filler words in English, but we can’t ignore the vast world of filler words and languages across the world and what they have to teach us about the nature of how we talk. So, it turns out you might not be surprised or maybe you are, but it turns out that almost every world language has these filler words, these discourse markers, verbal disfluencies, conversation managers, whatever you want to call them.

It’s clear that they’re a linguistic universal. And we’ll show you some examples or play for you some examples of, of people speaking different languages, having a hard time, finding their thoughts, or maybe stalling a bit. Um, but there’s something we see across all or almost all languages in the world. So, the question for us is what does that tell us about the purpose and prevalence of these words and how maybe they’re stigmatized in our society?
Um, but as English speakers, we don’t really carry a unique burden in using these words and maybe being called out for them, because it seems like they actually are more of a universal than we might think. So, I’m going to play some clips for you from the Babbel Media Universe. These are from our YouTube videos, um, from our Facebook lives. But these are all people who either worked for Babbel or were in videos created by Babbel. And they’re speaking three different languages and try to see if you can pick out certain ways that they may be stall or try to fill time with filler words or noises. So, the first one we’ll start with is Italian.

Italian speaker: [Italian speech].

David Doochin: So, that was Italian. Now let’s listen to German.

German speaker: [German speech].

David Doochin: Okay, so that was German. And finally let’s listen to Spanish.

Spanish speaker: [Spanish speech].

David Doochin: Okay. So, that was three clips from three different languages. And if you noticed the same thing I did, what I heard most was the sort of elongated vowel people saying they’re, they’re finishing up saying one word, but they haven’t quite figured out what the next thought they want to say is, so they kind of draw out the word-

Steph Koyfman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Doochin: … uh, before they get to the next thought. Um, and there were a few, if you don’t speak other languages, that’s fine too, because I only really speak enough Spanish to pick up, um, from the Spanish clip that I just played. But one thing that I heard was this word, pues, in Spanish, which means, well, which staff, as you might know, because you wrote an article about filler words and other languages is a—

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: … really common stalling word in Spanish. Um, and this is something that I in the classroom in, in college heard all the time from professors or other students who needed a substitute for something like, um, or well, while they tried to gather their thoughts. Pues, um, or even have, a ver, means-

Steph Koyfman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Doochin: … let’s see in Spanish. And I remember I had a, an eighth grade Spanish teacher who would always say, a ver, a ver, a ver, a ver.

Steph Koyfman: (laughs).

David Doochin: That, um, that reminded me of, uh, filler words in Spanish and my own experience. So—

Steph Koyfman: Sometimes—

David Doochin: … was there anything that stood—

Steph Koyfman: … um, I’ve, I mean, I definitely heard people use that just as like a standalone phrase to—

David Doochin: Yeah.

Steph Koyfman: … a ver.

David Doochin: Yeah.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: I think that that’s a great point, too. These phrases don’t have to necessarily be, you know, embedded within a greater sentence or a greater expression, they could stand by themselves, too.

Steph Koyfman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Doochin: Um, but one thing that I keep coming back to, in the three clips that, that we heard were that these speakers all used, um, or, uh, or, eh, in some form.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: And that what we—

Steph Koyfman: That’s what I picked up on that, the like, the, eh, kind of.

David Doochin: Yeah, and that kind of just seems to me like a natural, like, thinking noise. You know, we don’t necessarily need language specific thinking sounds because when you’re confused or when you’re lost for a thought, you make this sound, uh, or, um.

Steph Koyfman: One of the things that I found the most interesting when I was writing about filler words and other languages is that, other languages literally say like as well, like in, I think in Italian and Portuguese, they say like, tipo. Um, I think Swedish has that too, where literally the word for like is used to kind of, um, buy time when you’re speaking. So, I don’t, I don’t know if, I don’t know if that, if it’s just one of those things that kind of cropped up organically at the same time in multiple languages, or if everyone’s just copying English, if it’s one of those kinds of like linguicisms?

David Doochin: Yeah. That’s a great question. And I don’t know the answer, but it is an interesting point you bring up that a lot of languages have very, very similar fun— similarly functioning word for the English like. Um, there’s, I’m looking through your article that you wrote stuff about filler words and other languages and finding so many rich examples of—

Steph Koyfman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Doochin: … words, just like the ones you mentioned, like tipo in Italian, um, there’s this word donc in French, which is kind of like, so, uh, at the beginning or end of a sentence.

Steph Koyfman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Doochin: Um, there’s a lot of parallels with English, we in, in English we say stuff like, you know, or you see, in French that exists too, uh, tu vois, you see.

Steph Koyfman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Doochin: Um, and, and even in Dutch, I remember there’s a phrase, weet je, you know, um—

Steph Koyfman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Doochin: … so, it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a lot of parallels between these phrases in English and other languages. And that is a good point. Maybe that means that, that like didn’t come from English, maybe it kind of cropped up simultaneously across world languages, or maybe it did come from English and it kind of seeped its way into, um, all these languages across the world. Um, but that’s a really, really good point that you bring up that there are these parallels in, in languages.

And I think that goes to show that there aren’t really that many filler words separating us as speakers. We all kind of tend to make the same sounds. And even though we have linguistic variations that are unique to the languages we speak, um, I think we all use these filler words, and stalling words, and not shows us something about who we are as people who we are as speakers of languages, whatever they are. That we all share something in common.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: So, if you’re curious about all these other filler words in other languages, um, I highly encourage you to check out Steph’s article, it’s called “How To Stall (And Instantly Sound More Fluent)” In 7 Different Languages and we’ll post in the, the show notes, so you can check it out. But also, Steph, one thing that, one point that you make in this article that I wanted to get your, your insight on is how we tend to stigmatize using filler words in our own language, but could it actually be to your advantage to use one of these filler words in a different language? Um, one of these more nuanced like tipo in Italian or pues in, in Spanish or donc in French, what does that actually help you with? Um, if you’re trying to learn to speak another language, could it be in your best interest to actually use these filler words?

Steph Koyfman: Yeah, well, I mean, that was actually kind of the whole, um, sort of like the premise under which I collected these examples was that you can actually learn to use filler words to sound more fluent, which sounds kind of like, um, sounds kind of like a contradiction to say that you would use disfluencies to sound more fluent. But, um, I mean, it’s just kind of, uh, um, the whole idea is that like, there’s, there’s a way that we think we’re supposed to sound and there’s the way that we sound.

And if you want to sound fluent, then you should do your best to kind of, um, mimic the sounds of natural speech as they exist. And that’s sort of a moving target, right? Because, uh, language is constantly evolving. ‘Cause I feel like it’s one of those things where you might know that, okay, so in Spanish I can say, pues, and it can ha— sort of make me sound more like a native speaker.

Um, but then it, it might take some experience or time around native speakers to understand when it makes sense to say, pues, and when it doesn’t. Um, so that’s also one of those things that kind of, um, you perfect over time and it kind of demonstrates that you’ve spent some time around people of that culture. Um, I, I feel like, I feel like on some level it makes you sound more like a native speaker and it also kind of signals like an in-group understanding of the culture too.

David Doochin: Yeah, that’s a great point. I think that it shows us that there’s not so much that we need to be ashamed about when it comes to using filler words because every language has them or almost every language has them, as we see. And they’re such an essential part of conversation in almost every language that using them makes us sound more authentic and more real if we know the context that they come up in and we’re able to use them effectively. It could really make an impression on a native speaker and show that we are paying attention to more than just vocabulary and grammar, that we’re actually tuned in to the infrastructure of, of conversation in different languages itself. So, that’s a really great point that you bring up.

Okay. Before we wrap up, I wanted to actually share an anecdote with you and our listeners from my roommate, um, and my friend James, who before this year was working in Spain, in high schools, with high school students, um, as a part of a program through the Spanish government that actually put him in the middle of these, of these groups of teenagers, um, in classrooms. And he had a really interesting anecdote to share about these filler words in the classrooms, uh, that he noticed, that were cropping up in Spain. So, I’ll let him share that story.

James Douglas:

Hi, it’s James and I spent the last two years in Spain in Madrid teaching middle and high school English in public schools. And most of the classes were conducted in English, but I did hear a lot of Spanish among the students. And sometimes when they would ask questions or ask for clarification, they would address teachers in Spanish. So, I was able to hear a lot of the phrases that they used. And one phrase that they use in particular was, en plan. And the more I started to hear it, um, mm, mm, it was just everywhere and, en plan. So, I was wondering, what does it mean? And it, it basically just means in plan. So, the students would say, en plan, all the time.

And there was one teacher with whom I worked, Maria, who was really, really bothered by the students saying, en plan. And the group that I think said it the most was like 8th grade, 9th grade. Um, and there was a particular group of girls who just said, en plan, whenever they try to articulate anything. And so this teacher, Maria, instituted a three strike rule, which stated that if you said, en plan, three times in a class, she would send you out for five minutes. And that might be questionable pedagogy.

But, uh, the point is, is that she was so bothered by this phrase that these young students were saying, en plan. And so, I asked her about why it bothered her so much. And she just said it was a generational thing that people her age, I think she was in her late 30s, maybe early 40s, the filler that they used is, o sea. And that was co— common in Madrid, but less so among high schoolers who were saying, en plan.

David Doochin: So, Steph, what did you think about that story that James told?

Steph Koyfman: I mean, it’s just so kind of hilarious and totally validating of this idea that like, we’re not so different. Like we all kind of have these experiences growing up.

David Doochin: Yeah, I agree. It makes me think, okay, we, for all that we like to, to relay on the youth of today for, for using words that maybe we don’t understand, or that kind of came out of nowhere, we were once in these positions too, and as English speakers, we’re not alone either it’s happening all over the world and it’s not something that we can necessarily stop without a lot of intention. But the question is, do we actually need to try to stop it? Or is this just a natural kind of linguistic unfolding that has been happening for centuries or for millennia even, something that we should just embrace for what it is instead of really trying to, to root it out?

So, these are big questions that we don’t have to answer right now, but we hope we got you thinking about filler words in English, uh, the way that you use them, where they crop up and how they actually might tell us about conversation and the way that we work in conversation. And we also hope that you learned a bit about filler words in other languages too. Of course, there’s much more to be learned, and we want you to check out all the great resources that we have, uh, listed in the show notes as well. But we hope this was a great start. And we hope that we, uh, kind of told you a little bit about the, um, linguistic humanity we all share because of the fact that filler words are so prevalent in all the languages we find across the world.

But we’ll leave you with that. And I just want to say, thank you so much Steph for joining me today. It was a pleasure to have you.

Steph Koyfman: Well, thank you for having me.

David Doochin: Multilinguish is a production of the language app, Babbel. This episode was produced by me, David Doochin with help from Steph Koyfman, editing and sound design was done by Brian Rosado. Special thanks to James Douglas for sharing a story with us. You can read about today’s episode topic and more on Babbel Magazine, just visit B-A-B-B-E-L.com/magazine. Say hi on social media by finding us at Babbel USA. Finally, please rate and review this podcast. We really appreciate it. Thank you.

Learn to speak a new language, stalling and all.
Author Headshot
David Doochin
David is a content producer for Babbel USA, where he writes for Babbel Magazine and oversees Babbel's presence on Quora. He’s a native of Nashville and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied linguistics and history. Before Babbel he worked at Quizlet and Atlas Obscura. A geek for grammar and an editorial enthusiast, he speaks Spanish (and dabbles in German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Italian). When he’s not curating his Instagram meme collection, you can find him spending too much money on food and exploring new cities around the world.
David is a content producer for Babbel USA, where he writes for Babbel Magazine and oversees Babbel's presence on Quora. He’s a native of Nashville and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied linguistics and history. Before Babbel he worked at Quizlet and Atlas Obscura. A geek for grammar and an editorial enthusiast, he speaks Spanish (and dabbles in German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Italian). When he’s not curating his Instagram meme collection, you can find him spending too much money on food and exploring new cities around the world.

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