Exploring the Difference in Filler Word Frequency between Non-Native English Speakers and Native English Speakers

Clayton Puckett, Nicole Fonacier

Typically, when thinking about filler words, the immediate interpretation is that they’re a result of bad habits. Yet the purpose of filler words differs depending on the setting, and its frequency varies from speaker to speaker. In both informal and formal speech, filler words can be used to begin or continue streams of thought, assuage discomfort in silence, and allow time to process information. If filler words are used excessively, it can either negatively impact the credibility of the speaker or it can help string together words. This raises the question of why we use filler words, who is more likely to use them, and whether or not using them is indeed such a horrible thing to do. To answer these questions, we conducted a study focusing on the differences in filler word frequency between non-native and native English speakers. Participants were asked to answer a series of questions that would encourage the usage of verbal fillers through memory recollection and impromptu thinking; the conversations were recorded and the number of filler words used were then tallied as a proportion to the number of total words spoken. We hypothesized that non-native English speakers will use filler words less frequently in their responses due to a more conscious awareness of fluency. The results from our data supported this hypothesis: on average, native English speakers used about 4 more filler words for every 100 words spoken when compared to the non-native English speakers in the study. This suggests that the frequency of filler words could possibly be influenced by comfort levels in practicing a language and whether that language is the individual’s native language.

Background Information

We began by defining filler words as any word or utterance that takes away from the main message of the speaker and paid particular attention to two categories: filled pauses and discourse markers. Examples of filled pauses include “like”, “um”, “uh”, “okay”, and “so” (Laserna, Seih, Pennebaker, 2014). These are what most people are familiar with, since filled pauses tend to be more common in everyday conversation and more tempting to use in stressful situations such as interviews or presentations. Discourse markers are words such as “I mean”, “you know”, and “like.” They differ in that there is meaning to its placement. The purpose of discourse markers is to connect and organize what is being spoken rather than serving as something to simply fill a gap in speech. If your friend invites you to hang out on the week you have finals to which you respond “you know, that does not sound like a bad idea since I have been studying so hard and am feeling ready”, that initial “you know” is the discourse marker. It was intentionally placed as a sign of agreement. Further research suggests different causes for verbal interpolations where the individual utilizes filler words as a means to shape identity (Duvall, Robbins, Graham, & Divett, 2014). This happens when fluency in a language is being used as a means to fit into a culture. People seeking to achieve this are more inclined to eliminate filler words from their speech to better identify with the more dominant speech community. Other research perceives filled pauses as cues for the creation of more complex ideas (Watanabe, Hirose, Den, & Minematsu, 2008). By assessing and comparing the frequency of filled pauses used by native and non-native English speakers, we can begin to draw conclusions regarding the usage, purpose and likely user of the filler words within verbal speech.

Methods

Data was collected from 10 current UCLA students: 5 native English speakers and 5 non-native English speakers. All participants were found in UCLA’s residential buildings. With the participant’s consent, each conversation was recorded and later used to tally the filler words as well as the total word count. A total of eight to nine questions were asked to the participant (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Questions asked to the Participants

To ease the participants into the study and create a comfortable environment, warm-up questions asking general information preceded the actual assessment questions of the survey. We hypothesized that filler words will be used less frequently among the non-native English speakers given that their basis of learning and the experience they may have with the English language is likely to have originated from a more formal setting. To elaborate, native English speakers do not have to fear about their fluency and are therefore not as aware of their filler word usage. The tallied data as rations was then translated to percentages in order to better compare the usage of filler words between the two groups.

Results

It’s important to note once again that the frequency of these filler words was not recorded as a raw qualitative count, rather as a ratio indexing the usage of filler words within the user’s speak. This is a vital part of this data recording process as it levels the playing field and virtually eliminates the possibility of large ambiguities between shy and talkative participants for example. Without this adjustment, the results would be largely skewed as some participants would naturally give longer answers than others, therefore further increasing the likelihood of using filler words within their responses. After the results had been calculated, our hypothesis proved to be correct, although not by a massive margin. The percentages of filler words for the native English speakers were as follows: 15%, 14%, 15%, 6.9%, 5.8%. The mean is therefore 11.34% (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Frequency of Filler Words – Native English Speakers

Alternatively, the percentages of filler words for the non-native English speakers were as follows: 14%, 5.6%, 3.2%, 12%, 3.8%. The mean is therefore 7.72% (see Figure 3). The difference between these two averages is close to 4% which is a statistic previously referred to stating that on average for every 100 words spoken, native English speakers used about 4 more filler words in comparison to non-native English speakers.

Figure 3: Frequency of Filler Words – Non-Native English Speakers

 

Discussion

There are a variety of factors that could be improved throughout this experiment. Although the research question is strong, the lack of time and resources have limited us in the ability to carry out extensive research. It has been fascinating to see the results of this experiment coincide with our hypothesis, but given such a small sample size, the results could easily result in an opposite manner if we were to repeat this experiment. We still stand by our hypothesis, but to truly strive for conclusive data, we would have to enlarge our sample size and take into account a number of other factors. There are a number of factors that can additionally skew data that would either prove too hard to control or would need to be drowned in a large number of participants. These factors include influential features such as the participants educational history learning the English language as well as the participants receptiveness to language learning itself. To further articulate, the participants educational history learning the English language would include not only include the number of years that s/he has been learning it, but also the environment in which it was learning or taught in, the number of years being immersed in an English speaking society, and the frequency of English social interaction that the participant experiences. Alternatively, the participants receptiveness to language learning as a process may be a factor of how many languages they speak and how capable they are at adapting to new environments and their ability to pick up new languages.

Conclusion

The design of this project proved worthy of our efforts, and as we finalize our findings and reflect on the work we have conducted, we are able to critique our methods. If this experiment were to operate on a large scale, it could benefit greatly from a large sample size. With a reconfiguration of data recording methods to accommodate for the masses of participants, this experiment would prove to be conclusive as outliers are adjusted for and the results transition towards statistical relevance.

References

Duvall, E., Robbins, A., Graham, T., & Divett, S. (2014). Exploring filler words and their impact. Schwa. Language & Linguistics, 11, 35-49.

Laserna, C. M., Seih, Y., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2014). Um . . . who like says you know: Filler word use as a function of age, gender, and personality. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33(3), 328-338. doi:10.1177/0261927X14526993

Watanabe, M., Hirose, K., Den, Y., & Minematsu, N. (2008). Filled pauses as cues to the complexity of upcoming phrases for native and non-native listeners. Speech communication, 50(2), 81-94.

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