People pause to think about what they are saying. All. The. Time.
These simple vowel sounds are used as “fillers” when talking, and they are used to keep conversations running smoothly. This is because, in a two-person conversation, people take turns talking. If one person stops speaking, the other assumes it is their turn. Fillers signal to the listener that the other person is not done talking.
On IELTS it is perfectly acceptable to use “um” and “ah” on the speaking section, as it is considered to be a normal part of everyday conversation. Do not be afraid of using this technique - but do keep in mind that it needs to be used sparingly. Using “um” and “ah” too frequently will signal to the instructor that you are not confident with your English, rather than signaling that you are thinking about the question itself.
So what else can you do to give yourself some time to think before answering? Use filler phrases.
To be honest…
Use “to be honest” when you are going to say something that is contrary to what one would expect.
Examiner: What activities do you like to do in your free time?
Examinee: To be honest, I do not have much free time. I work and go to school. However, I do like to read before bed every night.
That’s a good question…
Use “that’s a good question” when you don’t have a straightforward answer. If the examiner asks whether you work or go to school, you would not say “that’s a good question” because there is an obvious answer. “That’s a good question” is a great filler when you are asked more complex questions.
Examiner: Do you think the government should increase funding for the arts?
Examinee: That’s a good question. On the one hand, the arts are an important aspect of culture. On the other hand, funding is greatly needed in areas such as public education and infrastructure.
It’s difficult to say…
This is another filler that can be used when you don’t have a straightforward answer.
Examiner: Do you think cell phones have changed society for the better or for the worse?
Examinee: It’s difficult to say. There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to cell phone use. For example…
Let me think about that / Can I have a second to think about that?
Using a filler such as “let me think about that” tells the examiner that you are thinking about the question. This is a very normal thing to do, but saying so is important.
Examiner: How has your hometown changed since you were a child?
Examinee: Well, let me think about that for a second…One thing that comes to mind as having changed dramatically is...
**Remember, you don’t want to overuse filler phrases. Using them for every question is not natural and doing so will make you sound rehearsed. Use fillers sparingly and smartly, and your examiner will be impressed with your ability to navigate conversations in English.
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