Tag Archives: hedging

Markers, fillers and hedging: not landscape gardening but authentic communication

What differences do you notice between the following two extracts?

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the way we live now- we have to change somehow, um, you know. We’re gonna end up with- with no water, with no heating, with- with nothing if we don’t change the way that we all live, so I think the point that he’s making about um homes being smaller um so that we can afford to heat them and to have water for them and, you know, different furniture and things like that is a really great idea.

I don’t think that there’s any doubt that we have to change the way we live now. If we don’t change, we’re going to end up with no water, no heating, with nothing, in fact. So, I think the point he’s making about homes being smaller, so that we can afford to heat them, and have water for them, is a great idea.

The first example comes from a semi authentic recording we made for New Total English Intermediate. The second is a ‘cleaned-up’ version. It’s been cleaned up by trying to simplify the syntax a bit, removing repetition and hesitation and taking out some of the markers and fillers.

The second version is perhaps more representative of a typical scripted dialogue (though things are changing, as we’ll discuss later); the first version is certainly more representative of how people actually speak.

In his article, ‘Lessons from the analysis of chunks‘, Michael McCarthy makes the point that two word chunks such as ‘you know’ ‘I mean’ and ‘kind of’ are actually much more frequent than many very common words such as ‘their’ ‘where’  or ‘friend’.

These high frequency chunks have a central part to play in communication. Some are often referred to as ‘fillers’. They can certainly act as ways of holding the floor while we think what to say next, but many high frequency chunks also have other clear pragmatic uses:

Referring to or checking shared knowledge: you know, you know what I mean.

Clarifying: I mean, like

Hedging (being indirect so as to save the other person face): I think, kind of, I don’t know if, a little bit, quite, actually, sort of

Vagueness: and things like that (see above example), a couple of, something

Everyday speech is full of these kinds of features, so aren’t we doing our students a disservice by presenting them with too sanitized a version of spoken English?

Alex Gilmore, in the article ‘A comparison of textbook and authentic  interactions.’ finds that dialogues in the newer coursebooks (in 2004, when the article was published), ‘are beginning to incorporate more natural discourse features.’. I don’t think there’s any doubt that this trend has continued, and, furthermore, there is a recent move towards using more authentic or semi authentic material (such as in New Total English or Speakout).

It is certainly possible to have too much authenticity, and some transcripts of real conversations are pretty much unintelligible, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that including these features in recordings helps learners in processing real life interactions.

Getting students to ‘notice’ markers, fillers and hedging.

Obviously when students are listening to a recording, they are generally focused on picking out the key elements of meaning. However, we can focus on these high frequency chunks as a follow up task.

–          Just as I did at the beginning of the post, you can rewrite part of an authentic transcript in a ‘cleaned up’ way and ask students to find the differences.

–          Alternatively, give out the ‘cleaned up’ transcript and ask students to listen and write down any extra words or phrases they hear.

–          Or, if you can make your own recordings, you could record a semi authentic dialogue, and then a scripted version of the same conversation and ask students what differences they notice.

–          Give out cards with the high frequency chunks on, and ask students to hold them up whenever they hear ‘their’ chunk. (In some discourse the student with ‘you know’ may get quite tired arms..)

Encouraging students to use markers, fillers and hedging.

The first thing to say is that it is probably more important for students to be aware of these chunks than it is for them to be able to use them all.

However, many of these high frequency chunks can be very useful in gaining a little time to think when speaking, while still sounding fluent. Equally, not using hedging or vagueness can make discourse seem very brusque and even a bit aggressive or rude.

Here are some examples of very frequent chunks which I think learners could benefit from being able to use productively:



a bit

you know what I mean

and things like that/and stuff like that

a lot of people

there’s a lot of

I don’t know what/how/if

First, learners need to hear these phrases in context.

Secondly, they will need help with how to pronounce them, as chunks of language, with all the features of connected speech.

And then they will need to see how they could incorporate them into their own language use.

–          A good way of doing this is to get learners to record a short dialogue or monologue, write out a transcript, and then see which of the chunks they either included, or could have included.

–          Or ask learners to repeat a speaking task (with a new partner perhaps), and this time try to incorporate a few more high frequency chunks.


Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Speaking, Vocabulary