Hesitation in the IELTS Speaking Exam

What is hesitation? Hesitation means pausing for a moment before you continue speaking. This is a perfectly natural part of speech. You probably do it in your native language every single day. However, many students want to know the answer to these questions:

  1. Is it ok to hesitate in the IELTS Speaking Exam?
  2. How do I avoid hesitating too much?
  3. What are some natural ways to hesitate?

Let’s look at these questions in detail.

Is it ok to hesitate in the IELTS Speaking Exam?

As I mentioned above, hesitation is a natural part of speech and so it is not a big problem to do it in the speaking exam. Native speakers will hesitate, and so will you. However, try to keep it to a minimum. Hesitating too much goes beyond natural speech and shows you are not able to maintain fluency and the conversation becomes awkward and unnatural.

In short, it is fine to hesitate a little. Look at interviews with normal people on YouTube (don’t look for scripted TV shows). Normal people hesitate in conversation. You should aim to do the same as they do, and not hesitate too often.

How do I avoid hesitating too much?

So we have established that hesitation is not a terrible thing… however, you don’t want to do it too much. So how can we avoid that?

The biggest problem that I see is students speaking too fast and then running into trouble. It’s ok to speak slowly; in fact, it may even be the best thing to do. If you speak too quickly you are more likely to make mistakes. You often encounter a point in the sentence where you need to express a new idea and if you speak too quickly you won’t know how to do it.

Instead, speak calmly and precisely, and don’t get too nervous. Your brain can keep up with your mouth when you speak at a reasonable pace, and you will hesitate less.

You may also want to try structuring your thoughts more carefully. In part one, just answer with one or two basic sentences. In part two, plan out your answer so that you don’t need to stop and think. In part three, take a moment to think before you begin, and then speak slowly.

What are some natural ways to hesitate?

My students right now are all Chinese, and some of them hesitate by using Chinese words. This is a big problem. If you are going to hesitate, do it in English! In English, people say “um…” or “er…” Listen to native speakers do this and try to copy it. However, even though it is natural to say this sometimes, it sounds bad to use them too much. Look at this example of a student pausing too often:

Well, er, you see in my country, um, we believe that, ah, there’s no such thing as a, um, let’s see, no such thing as an, er….

This sort of speech is not appropriate for the IELTS Speaking Exam and should be avoided.

You can also use some phrases to buy yourself a little time. For example, when asked a difficult question, rather than starting to talk and then hesitating later, you can say, “Well, let me think…” or “Let me see…” and then take a second or two to compose your answer. As long as you don’t take too long, these are perfectly legitimate ways to pause for time. Here is an example:

Q: Do you think people are giving away their right to privacy when they use smartphone apps?

A: Well, let me think… To be honest, I’m not sure whether or not they are giving away their right to privacy. I suppose it depends on the app and what settings a person chooses. For example…

If you are looking for a word in your memory and you can’t find it, you can often express this in English to compensate. Here’s an example:

I really enjoyed going to the ballet last year with my mother. It was a… what’s the word? … rewarding experience.

Using an expression like “what’s the word?” shows that even though an item of vocabulary may not have come to you quickly, you are thinking and speaking in English. It’s much better than using your native language or simply saying, “um… er…. ah…” and pausing for a long time.

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and the founder/editor of Beatdom literary journal. He lives and works in rural China, and loves to travel.

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