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language learning in the digital age

“Fillers and Interjections” – Stepping Stones to Fluency

Posted on November 16, 2017 by

Megan works in Babbel’s Public Relations team. Here, she looks at some of the complexities of filler and interjection words in a foreign language, and why immersion in real dialogue is essential to the language learning journey.

Some of English’s smallest words are currently making the largest headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. While Radio 4 listeners are up in arms over the overuse of ‘so’ on UK live radio and America waits in anticipation for the book release of the proclaimed University of Sydney linguist, Nick Enfield, “How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conservation”, Babbel takes a closer look at the little words that are captivating our attention.
Filler and interjection words are almost always absent from traditional language curriculums, and yet they’re crucial in every language. Knowing when to use ‘umm’, ‘er’, and ‘yippee’ – each carrying different shades of meaning – bridges the gap between bumbling tourist and cunning linguist.

So how should one learn fillers and interjections? Simple – natter with the natives! Exposing ourselves to real conversation ensures we cover the natural pragmatics of a language that do not appear in traditional textbooks – the colloquialisms, jokes, and emphasis that all languages pepper into conversation.  
What are filler and interjection words? A filler is a noise we make to allow time to think between words and sentences, or to infer hesitation, uncertainty, or another emotion subtly and indirectly. In English, we typically use ‘errr’ or ‘umm’. An interjection is an explicit that gives a sentence heightened intonation. For example, ‘Holy cow!’ or ‘Wow!’ in English may indicate surprise. Fillers and interjections stand grammatically alone, that is, they can be used by themselves or in a sentence, but they do not modify any other words in the sentence. They are not part our written language, excluding when the purpose of the written language is to mirror 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.
Lars, Editor for Russian in Babbel’s 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, near 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, aww conveys pity.
Fillers and interjections are nearly always learnt passively. At school, the focus is on vocabulary that we learn actively, that is, the words we intentionally make an effort to understand, say, and write. Active vocabulary, however, is only a small portion of a language learner’s vocabulary. The majority of any learner’s lexicon comprises of passive vocabulary, that is, the words we acquire through context. In conversation with native speakers, a learner encounters new words. As learners meet these ‘new words’ again 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 ‘new words’ in their dialogue.
Birte Dreier, Project Manager for Danish and Italian in Babbel’s 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.’
Second Language Acquisition research reveals that the acquisition of fillers and interjections is a natural outgrowth of immersion in real dialogue. In reality, however, immersion in real dialogue requires time and/or financial investment. In our busy lives, we don’t have time to watch a French film, read a German newspaper, or enroll in an intensive language course in Italy. Instead, we learn languages through apps, books or local language classes. Sadly, most app users crunch through vocabulary trainers, while school or book enrollees recite rote phrases from textbooks. Both lack immersion in real-life dialogue.
Learning fillers and interjections is inevitable as long as the learner conducts real conversations in the language. It is for this reason that Babbel prioritises 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, and 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.