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3 super simple "speaking strategies"

21 May 2012

In the introduction to my FREE ebook, I talked about the three steps to speaking a language "fluently" (although, I'm not fond of this word!): (1) get the language in your brain, (2) overcome your fear of speaking and (3) practice speaking. (Like I mentioned in the ebook, these steps can be done simultaneously)

The game: Battleship
There is strategy in speaking too! Photo by Joe King.

Because the ebook discusses only the first of those steps, I've decided that I'm going to spend some time on my blog covering the next two. Today, I'm going to talk about #3: practicing speaking.

In this step, the goal is to develop and practice "speaking strategies" like circumlocution (for when you don't know a word), various conversational phrases to keep things flowing and even non-verbal tricks to make people more comfortable when speaking with you.

Silence is the one of the most uncomfortable things that can happen in a conversation, both for you and your speaking partner.

As a learner you might sometimes need a little extra time to process what you've heard or to form your response. But if the train conductor says, "Could you show me your ticket?" and you stare at them for 15 seconds without saying anything, it could get pretty awkward. :-)

In this article, I'm going to describe 3 super simple speaking strategies to avoid silence!

Read more learn what they are!

I'm sorry?

One strategy that I personally use in Polish is to say, "Prosze?" as if I had trouble hearing them or wasn't paying attention. It's an invitation for the other person to repeat what they just said but maybe louder.

In English, here are some common phrases to do the same:

  • I'm sorry?
  • Excuse me?
  • What was that?

This will give you the opportunity to think and even hear what they said again - WITHOUT awkwardly explaining your situation, like this: "I'm sorry, I don't understand. Could you please repeat?" You can accomplish the same thing in two or three words and appear totally natural.

I've actually gotten to the point where doing this is such a habit, that I have a tendency just to say "Proszę?" after the first sentence anyone says to me. :-)

Stall 'em!

In normal conversations in your native language, you don't always respond immediately. Sometimes you have to think about the answer. But you don't just stop talking!

There are a couple good phrases to let the person know that you've understood them and are working on a response, for example:

  • Let me think
  • That's a good question
  • Well ...

Saying one of these phrases will buy you 2-10 seconds to think.

Get some good phrases from a native speaker of the language you are learning, and practice saying one of them before responding. It can be helpful to know several, because you might want to do this more than once in the same conversation! :-)

Filler words

I was a little reluctant to suggest this, because once you start using filler words, it can be very difficult to stop.

We all know people in our native language that overuse filler words, such as "you know" or "like" - saying them between every two or three words. It's a slippery slope, so be careful!

However, if you have to pause for 2-3 seconds in the middle of a sentence, saying anything is better than saying nothing. Compare, "I like ... (2 second pause) ... going out on Fridays," with, "I like, you know, going out on Fridays."

I think it's better to use full words than filler sounds like "ah" or "um" because those can make it seem like you are struggling. You don't want the conversation to seem difficult for you - that could make the other person uncomfortable. But even filler sounds are better than nothing!

Here are some more examples in English:

  • well
  • so
  • basically
  • actually
  • ok
  • right

What do you think of these speaking strategies? Have you used any of them? Do you have your own strategies for avoiding silence? Please leave a comment below!

Anonymous's picture

Hi David!
I've got a question: Is there any difference in meaning between "I'm sorry" and "Excuse me"?

Posted by: maciekhtd (not verified) | Monday, May 21, 2012 - 10:40
David Snopek's picture

If you say them like a question (with rising intonation at the end) they mean the same. Hope that helps! Regards, David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Monday, May 21, 2012 - 11:46
Anonymous's picture

What about ‘pardon?’ / ‘I beg you pardon?’ Isn’t it similar to ‘sorry?’

Posted by: Wojtek (not verified) | Monday, May 21, 2012 - 12:17
David Snopek's picture

Yeah, that'd be good too! Although I don't personally hear people say that very often. Regards, David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Monday, May 21, 2012 - 13:18
Anonymous's picture

a few days ago on my matura oral exam i used "i didn't catch what you said, can you say it again?" because i needed to buy a few seconds.
Thats another helpful phrase

Posted by: tkff (not verified) | Monday, May 21, 2012 - 15:59
David Snopek's picture

Ah, yeah, that's another good one! :-) Just one small note: a native speaker probably wouldn't say "can you say it again" or similar, although, that is a perfectly acceptable sentence.

They'd probably just say: "I didn't catch that?" with rising intonation. It is asking the other person to repeat, but without directly using those words. This will seem a little more natural.

Best regards,

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, May 23, 2012 - 12:30
Anonymous's picture

In my a few last interviews I'v used fillers like "well...", "Could you please repeat?". But usually I must take a while to find words which I want to say.

Natomiast w moim rodzimym języku używam takich słów często, np.:
"No tak", "aha", "no nie?", "co nie?", "no wiesz" i wiele innych ;)

Posted by: Dominik (not verified) | Wednesday, May 23, 2012 - 03:07
Anonymous's picture

Hello David,
First of all congratulations for your great ebook, I downloaded it yesterday and obviously I haven’t finished the reading yet but despite of the fact that you said “it was not written for linguistics or experienced language learners”, and even being a linguist I found your book really good and full of precious pieces information for everyone interested in languages.
I have never studied Polish before, but after reading your blog I am seriously considering to study it. Can you give me any suggestion of good material to start by myself, I have at home titles like Assimil Polish, and Polish Bez problemu! (but I have never opened them, due to other languages I have been learning) do you think these are good titles or have you any other suggestion?
Best Wishes,
Jimmy Mello

Posted by: Jimmy Mello (not verified) | Thursday, May 24, 2012 - 07:45
David Snopek's picture

Hi Jimmy,

Thanks! It's always great to have a linguist around. :-) I'm constantly wondering if certain things I notice or theories I come up with have any linguistic backing. ;-)

I don't know Polish Bez Problemu and I haven't used Assimil Polish (but I assume it's like the other Assimil programs which I've paged through). I've done some reviews of Polish learning products:,1?lang=en

I prefer content-based learning as opposed to conscious study of grammar, etc. Of course, you can use lots of products (ie. Assimil) in this way, even if they weren't designed for it. However, here is a podcast with great content-based learning materials:

Here's a couple general articles about starting Polish on my blog:

I hope that helps!

BTW, your blog looks interesting! I only looked for a minute or two but I subscribed and look forward to reading more. :-)

Best regards,

Posted by: David Snopek | Saturday, May 26, 2012 - 06:51
Anonymous's picture

Isn't it possible to say "Słucham" aswell? I've heard a lot of that hanging out with my girlfriend and her friends, and I've understood it as "I am listening (because I didn't hear you before)"... Correct?

Posted by: Arne Ingemansson (not verified) | Wednesday, June 6, 2012 - 05:12
David Snopek's picture

Yep! I've heard that one too. I just personally settled on "proszę." :-)

I wish you further success with your Polish!


Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, June 6, 2012 - 06:13
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