Ah… let’s see… what was this article going to be about? Oh yes, that’s right: hesitation. Er… Where should we begin? Hmm… I wonder. Um… Let’s start at the beginning…
Today, let’s look at the topic of hesitation and IELTS. What I mean by “hesitation” is the gaps that we leave in between words when we cannot quite think what to say. In the above example, I have used “ah,” “er,” “hmm,” and “um.” These are all audible forms of hesitation, which we call “filler words.”
What is Hesitation and What are Filler Words?
When people speak in any language, they might find that there is a gap between some words or ideas. They might fill that gap with a sound, and that sort of word is usually called a “filler.” In English, we use many of these:
There are some others that are more modern, such as “like.” You may notice that many young people fill their sentences with “like” whenever they cannot think what to say.
- I went to Chris’ party last weekend. It was like so much fun.
We also have others. The words “so” and “well” can often fill gaps or indeed begin sentences. (You may have noticed in my YouTube videos that I over-use the word “so”!) Some people say things like “let’s see” or even “ok.”
All of these words serve the purpose of filling a gap because we are hesitating.
I have learned a few languages in my life and it is interesting to encounter those other filler sounds. In Chinese, they say “那个” (naga) and in Japanese “あの” (anno).
Can I Hesitate and Use Fillers in IELTS?
First of all, you absolutely can use fillers in IELTS when you hesitate. It is definitely a part of normal English and you would not be penalised for doing it up to a certain point.
However, it is important to note that hesitating too much is not a good thing. In particular, hesitation for reasons related to vocabulary could be a problem.
In the IELTS speaking rubric, you will find that hesitation is an issue of “Fluency and Coherence.” You can still get a band 7 for this section even if you hesitate a little too much:
- may demonstrate language-related hesitation at times
However, to get a band 8, your hesitation would be a matter of content rather than language:
- hesitation is usually content-related and only rarely to search for language
What this means is that you may pause a little to think of an idea to sufficiently answer a tough question, but you would not struggle to find the right words or grammar.
This is made explicit when it comes to band 9:
- any hesitation is content-related rather than to find words or grammar
Advice on Using Filler Words
First of all, I would strongly recommend that you fill any gaps in your speech with realistic English filler words rather than fillers from your own language. If a Chinese person, for example, used “那个” (naga) in English then it would definitely be a big problem.
Instead, familiarise yourself with those natural fillers I mentioned above. You can hear people use them in YouTube videos and livestreams. (But remember that people may edit out hesitation, so it’s not 100% natural.)
Next, you should not over-use these. If you find yourself using them too much, then you need to find a way avoiding it. The best way is to speak a little more slowly. Hesitation tends to be caused by your mouth and brain going out of sync. In other words, your brain might be thinking of ideas that you can’t quite express quickly enough.
You can also mix in phrases for the purpose of filling a gap rather than relying entirely upon sounds like “um.” You can practise saying things like, “Well, let’s see…” or “Let me think…” to buy yourself a second or two of thinking time. This serves the same purpose but does not sound quite the same as the usual fillers.
Finally, you should vary your fillers a little. I find that people who always say “um…” sound very repetitive and boring, but those who mix it up, saying “um… er… well… let’s see… ok… um…” have a better chance because the hesitation is less noticeable.
Don’t worry too much about hesitating in your IELTS speaking test. It is not good to hesitate too much, but even native speakers do it, particularly when it comes to difficult questions. You should use realistic filler words to insert into the gaps but do not repeat these too much. Ultimately, practising can help you pick the best speaking speed and avoid fillers, but they will always appear in your speech and that is ok.