Near the beginning of my journey to learn Spanish, I moved to Madrid to attend university. I had years of Spanish classes under my belt, and sometimes I watched movies in Spanish, so I figured I was set–I would just land in Madrid, immediately understand the language, and be able to respond effortlessly in Spanish, right? Oh boy…
One of the first things I noticed while I was getting used to my new life in Spain was how quickly everyone spoke. To them, it was just the normal pace of their speech, but for those first few months, I could barely understand more than a few words–much less comprehend entire sentences and then reply back in Spanish. I needed more time to listen, understand, and formulate a response. Not to mention that when I did manage to respond, I sounded like a walking textbook.
How did anyone manage to speak another language?!
That’s when I discovered a secret weapon—filler words.
What’s a filler word?
Have you ever been chastised by a teacher for saying “like”? Or told by your parents not to say “um”? These words (or sounds, in the case of “um”) are called filler words—they get a bad rap, but they’re actually useful and important parts of the language.
Sure, there’s a time and place for them (it’s probably best to avoid them in a job interview), but they serve a purpose! If you’re learning Spanish, here’s why you should make it a point to learn a few Spanish filler words (or muletillas).
What are filler words used for?
They buy you more time
When I started incorporating filler words into my Spanish, I found that they gave me a few more valuable seconds to process and form a response. A well-placed “Pueeeees” or “es que…” gives you space to think a little longer during a conversation. This is especially valuable, especially if you’re not quite fluent and are still getting comfortable speaking.
Instead of awkwardly stopping in the middle of a sentence to look for a word, these words let you place an intentional pause—but one that feels natural, and that your conversation partner probably won’t even notice.
They make you sound more natural
Ever notice that when you speak, you sound different than when you write an academic paper or even a story? That’s because natural conversation is a lot more fluid than writing. And that’s a good thing—if we spoke the way we wrote, we’d probably all sound like robots! Filler words fill pauses (hence, well, filler), grab the listener’s attention, and add to the natural flow of conversation.
Using filler words when you speak Spanish will help you sound like a more native speaker.
They help you sound like a more engaged conversational partner
Sometimes, early on in my journey to learn Spanish, I’d be so focused on trying to understand what someone was saying to me and/or on coming up with my own response that I would forget I was having a conversation! Words like “claro”, “vale” and “¿sabes?” help you be an interactive part of a conversation.
When you react to someone with words like “I see” or “okay”, or when you end a sentence with “you know?”, you signal to your conversation partner that you’re listening—and that you’re hoping for them to react to you, too! This idea in particular was especially helpful to me while I was in Spain, where highly interactive conversation with lots of interjection and interruption is the norm. If you arm yourself with an arsenal of filler words, you’ll be able to hold your own in a fast-moving Spanish conversation!
15 Filler words to use if you need to…
…Buy time to talk
Okay, so this one is less of a word and more of a sound. But it’s an important one, and if you’re learning Spanish, you’ll hear it all the time. Think of it as the Spanish version of “um”, and use it any time you’re trying to figure out what to say next.
- A: ¿Quieres comprarme estas flores? B: Emmm…oye, se me olvidó la cartera.
A: Do you want to buy these flowers for me? B: Ummm…listen, I forgot my wallet.
You’ll be pretty hard-pressed to listen to more than a few minutes of a Spanish conversation without hearing the word bueno. It’s a workhorse that can play quite a few roles as a filler word. You might already know that bueno translates to “good” (like in the phrase buenos días), but when it’s used as a filler word, it functions a lot like the English filler word “well”. It’s often used to start a sentence, like this:
- Bueno, no hay clases mañana, entonces voy a dormir hasta tarde.
Well, there aren’t any classes tomorrow, so I’m going to sleep in.
It can also act as an affirmative word, showing that you agree with someone’s statement.
- A: ¿Quieres ir al parque conmigo? B: Bueno, vamos.
A: Do you want to go to the park with me? B: Okay, let’s go.
Another common use of bueno, like the other words in this section, is to give yourself some more time to think before speaking.
- A: ¿Te cae bien él? B: Bueeeeno, no mucho.
A: Do you get along well with him? B: Wellllll, not really.
If filler words were competing for popularity, bueno would go head to head with pues to take the prize. Pues also translates to “well” in English, and you’ll probably hear it sprinkled generously throughout any Spanish conversation you find yourself in. Just like “well” in English, it expresses hesitation or indecision. It also offers a neutral way to start a sentence.
- A: Has hecho la tarea? B: Pues, no. Tomé una siesta.
A: Have you done the homework? B: Well, no. I took a nap.
A ver translates to “let’s see”, and much like its English equivalent, you can use it to buy yourself some time to think before you respond.
- A: ¿Quieres una manzana? B: A ver…honestamente, no tengo hambre, entonces no.
A: Do you want an apple? B: Let’s see…honestly, I’m not hungry, so no.
~ § ~
Es que literally translates to “it’s that”, but the more accurate English translation would be something like “it’s just that…”. Use it to explain yourself or introduce your reasoning (like why you can’t come to your cousin’s roommate’s dog’s destination birthday party, for example).
- A: No vas a Jamaica para la fiesta? B: Es que tengo que trabajar. Que lástima, ya sé.
A: You’re not going to Jamaica for the party? B: It’s just that I have to work. It’s a shame, I know.
Entonces is a relatively formal-sounding transition word that ties two clauses together and shows causal relation—but if you use it at the beginning of a sentence, it becomes a more casual filler word. It’s just like starting a sentence in English with “So…”
- Entonces, fui a la playa la última semana y nunca vas a adivinar a quién vi.
So, I went to the beach last week and you’re never going to guess who I saw.
When you’re done telling a story, use en fin to wrap it up by summarizing your important points. Use it where you would say “in other words” or “anyway”.
- En fin, te recomiendo probar el hielo vainilla con aceite de oliva.
Anyway, I recommend that you try vanilla ice cream with olive oil.
~ § ~
…To rephrase or emphasize
Digo is an especially helpful word for beginners to know because it lets you correct yourself when you’ve misspoken. (I use this word all the time!) You might recognize it as a conjugation of decir, but in this context, use it when you want to say “I mean/I meant to say…”
- La cita es en el segundo piso–digo, el tercero.
The appointment is on the second floor–I mean, the third.
O sea is used to expand on something you have already said. Think of it as the Spanish way to say “that is [to say]…”. Like a lot of the other words in this list, you’ll also hear it used widely as a filler word that doesn’t have an exact meaning and is mostly just there to pad the sentence.
- Hice ejercicio anoche, o sea, bailé por horas en el club.
I exercised last night, that is, I danced for hours at the club.
Y tal is the equivalent of saying “and so on” or “etcetera”. In more casual conversation, it can be tacked on to the end of a sentence without meaning much: think of the way we say “and stuff” at the end of sentences in English.
- A ella le gustan las series como Game of Thrones y tal.
She likes TV shows like “Game of Thrones” and stuff like that.
~ § ~
…To check comprehension
Although you can use this word to check for comprehension (it translates to “[do] you know?”), it works best to subtly ask for agreement or validation, much like its English counterpart, “ya know?”
- Simplemente no tengo el tiempo para conseguir otro trabajo, sabes?
I simply don’t have the time to look for another job, you know?
Meaning “do you understand?” or “do you see?”, these words are straightforward ways to check if you’re being understood.
- Las plantas no crecieron porque nunca las regaste, lo ves?
The plants didn’t grow because you never watered them, do you see [it]?
~ § ~
Vale simply means “okay” or “alright”. Use it anywhere in conversation when you want to agree with someone, or just fill in the space between sentences. It’s used in many Spanish-speaking countries, and I heard it about every five seconds when I lived in Spain.
- A: Vamos al cine este finde si quieres ir con nosotros. B: Vale, estaré allí.
A: We’re going to the movies this weekend if you want to come with us. B: Okay, I’ll be there.
You might know that ya can mean “now” or “already”, but it also has a double life as an all-purpose filler word. Ya can be used to express agreement, much like vale (and like the similar English word “yeah”). If this confuses you, don’t worry—you’ll start to pick up on the nuances of ya (and of other filler words whose meanings change with context) the more you listen and speak.
- A: El amanecer fue increíble esta mañana. B: Ya, estoy totalmente de acuerdo .
A: The sunrise was incredible this morning. B: Yeah, I totally agree.
Claro means “sure”, “right”, or “of course”. It’s a useful word for reacting to what someone has said, and you’ll hear it all the time in Spanish conversation.
- A: La mejor manera de comer pizza es con piña. B: Claro, todo el mundo sabe eso.
A: The best way to eat pizza is with pineapple. B: Of course, everyone knows that.
Using just a few of these small but mighty filler words the next time you speak Spanish will bring your conversation skills to the next level. (And this is only a small sample of the many dozens of filler words and phrases used by Spanish speakers all over the world. There are many region-specific muletillas that you’ll hear if you keep your ears perked!)
Try this–the next time you’re watching TV, listening to a podcast, or even eavesdropping on a Spanish conversation (hey, it’s a great way to practice your listening skills), see if you can identify a few filler words. You might even learn a new one that you can add to your personal vocabxulary.
As your spoken Spanish improves with input and practice, you’ll begin to use filler words naturally. But they’re also a great tool to incorporate into your spoken Spanish on purpose because of how fluid and conversational they can make your speech sound. As they say, fake it til you make it—and that’s never more helpful than when you’re learning to speak a language!
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