Don’t sound boring - use discourse markers to improve your English!

A quick way to make sure your English isn’t repetitive is to vary the discourse markers or ‘fillers’ you use when you speak. Words or sounds like ‘basically’, ‘well’, and ‘hmm’ can be ‘fillers’. They can have a vague meaning or no meaning at all when used in conversation.

We all use fillers to buy us time time while we are thinking of what to say next. It’s a natural part of most languages, but if we use the same one too often, it starts to sound boring and repetitive.

A good first step to varying your speech is to record a sample of yourself speaking and find out which ‘fillers’ or discourse markers you use most. Set yourself a task to speak for a minute about a topic of your choice, and then record yourself as you speak.

Listen back to the recording and you will notice the discourse markers and sounds that you use most often. It’s usually obvious to our listeners, but often we don’t notice when we use them, so hearing your speech played back can sometimes be a little embarrassing. When I first did this activity with a class, we all looked at our most common ‘fillers’. Mine was ‘so’ and every time I said it for the next week, all my students laughed and told me to stop.

Once you’ve identified your most common discourse markers, make a conscious effort not to use them. Instead, you can use some of these alternatives.

Instead of repeating ‘I mean’, try using ‘What I’m trying to say is..’, ‘My point is…’, or ‘What I’m getting at is…’.

‘Of course’ is another discourse marker that some people overuse. Try ‘Obviously…’ or ‘It’s clear that…’ instead. Remember, only use these discourse markers when what you are about to say will, in fact, be obvious to the listener, otherwise it can sound arrogant.

If you fill time in your speech by saying ‘err’, you may be able to swap it for ‘now’, ‘so’, or ‘well’.

A discourse marker commonly overused by native speakers, particularly younger ones, is ‘like’. You might hear someone say: “So I was, like, at this, like, party. And my friend was, like, asking me to, like, dance.” Overusing ‘like’ can sound very boring and annoying to speakers of English, so it’s best avoided. Try and find an alternative, or even add just pauses to your conversation. It’ll make your spoken English sound much more sophisticated.

So, now that you have some alternative expressions you can use while you are thinking, try recording your speech again. This time, every time you find yourself overusing your favourite discourse marker, try and use one of the new ones instead. You’ll find that practising this way regularly will increase your range of vocabulary and make your English sound more varied and sophisticated.