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September 2012 | Frankfurt

telc English tips: Conversation fillers

We’ve all been there: You’re mid-flow in a conversation but can’t quite find the words you need to continue, or somebody asks an unexpected question and you don’t know how to respond. In these situations, do you desperately cast around for ideas in uncomfortable silence? Or do you say something to fill the gap while you organise your thoughts?

In your own language you will undoubtedly have a range of conversational fillers at your disposal which you use without even thinking. If you need to formulate your ideas in English it can a bit more difficult, however, as you have to not only work out what you want to say, but also how you want to say it – with the correct vocabulary, grammar and syntax to make yourself understood.

One useful strategy when you’re lost for words can be to reformulate the question (‘What do I think about global warming? Hmm, that’s a good question…’). Here are some other phrases you can use to gain some thinking time in English:


Hmm…        I mean…        Now, let me think…
Um…           I guess…       Do you know what I mean?
Er…             You know…    It’s hard to say…
Well…         You see…       That’s an interesting question.
Right…        Basically…      I’ve never really thought about that.
Maybe…      Actually…       In a manner of speaking…

Employing these phrases is a highly useful technique that can be learned, practiced and ultimately improve your performance. Once you’ve learned a few that you’re comfortable using, you can practice with others learners, or simply try to include them the next time you’re called upon to speak in class or find yourself in conversation in English. A word of caution, however: Be careful not to overuse conversational fillers at the risk of sounding unnatural or – worse still – irritating.

Do you use any conversation fillers in English? Which ones do you find most useful and effective to gain thinking time? Share some ideas with other learners on the telc English Facebook page – we look forward to hearing from you!

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