“Hmm… Let’s see…”
Sometimes when we’re speaking we don’t really know what we want to say, so instead of going completely silent we use filler words. And guess what, the Japanese are no different! The Japanese language is chock-full of filler words, and today you’re going to learn nine of the most common ones! This lesson will be in story form so that you can understand the context in which these filler words are used. Let’s get started!
Japanese Filler Words
It’s Friday night. You’ve just gotten off work, and you’re rushing out of the train station. As you dodge people left and right, you glance at your watch.
Five minutes early. Great!
You arrive at the meeting spot—a bronze statue of a dog named Hachiko at the famous Shibuya Crossing. Within minutes, your friends begin coming up staircases and exiting through ticket gates. They’re all here. It’s Friday night, and it’s ladies night!
1. あのう (ANOU)
English: “Well…” / “Let me see…” / “Umm…”
The five of you sit down and begin looking over the menu. Both the seafood piccata and kale puttanesca sound delicious to you, but you can’t decide which one you want more. The waiter arrives and asks what he can get you.
“あのうね,” you say, still comparing the prices and calorie counts. “Could you give me a few more minutes?”
2. えっと (ETTO)
English: “Well…” / “Errr…” / “Let me see…” / “Uhhh…”
After your friends order, the waiter comes back to you.
“えっと…” you say before that last minute decision. “I’ll just go with the pad thai.”
“And to drink?” the waiter asks.
Oh, shoot! You spent so much time deliberating over the entrées that you forgot about drinks!
“えっとね…” you say, feeling a bit embarrassed that you’re taking so much time. “I’ll just have whatever my friends are having.”
3. へぇー (Heee)
English: “Really?” / “You don’t say?”
After everyone has ordered, and you’re all waiting for the drinks to arrive, you ask your friend Naomi how the new cooking class she signed up for is going. She can get long-winded at times when talking about things she’s interested in, but you all still like her nonetheless.
“へぇー,” you say every so often as she tells her story. This lets her know that you are listening and paying attention.
4. なるほど (NARUHODO)
English: “I see…” / “I see what you’re saying.”
You start to get a little bored with Naomi’s story.
“へぇー,” you say for the fortieth time, hoping she doesn’t notice that you’re about to fall asleep.
“I had no idea how important fresh butter is for baking,” she says. “Butter loses its moisture the longer you keep it in the fridge. Did you know that the longer you keep butter in the fridge, the dryer your cakes end up being?”
“なるほど,” you say. You genuinely had no idea how little you knew about cooking.
5. いいなー (II NAA)
English: “I envy you.” / “That sounds great!” / “Lucky you!” / “I’m jealous now.”
The drinks arrive, and your friend Hana begins speaking about her recent trip to Italy with her fiance. She says that they stayed in the most beautiful hotel, which had golden ceilings and a huge bedroom. At night they would drink champagne on the rooftop and listen to the music from the street below as the fireworks crackled in the sky above.
“いいなー,” you say, wishing you had someone to go on adventures like that with too.
6. 何だっけ (NANDAKKE)
English: “What is it…?” / “What is it I’m thinking of…?”
“Speaking of love interests…” says Hana, directing her attention to you. “How did that blind date go last week that I set you up on?”
“Blind date?” you think to yourself. You don’t remember a blind date…
No, wait, yes you do!
“Oh, yeah,” you say to Hana. “The blind date with…” You search your memory for his name. “何だっけ…”
“Haha,” Hana says. “You don’t remember his name!”
“何だっけ…,” you say again and laugh. It’s true, you really don’t remember his name.
7. そうか (SOU KA)
English: “Oh!” / “I see…” / “Is that so…?”
“You’re so picky with men,” your friend Emi says to you. “You’ve been on like a hundred dates this year, and you didn’t like any of them.”
“そうか,” you say, seeing some truth in her words. Maybe you should lower your standards a bit if you don’t want to spend Valentine’s Day alone again this year…
8. 確かに (TASHIKA NI)
English: “Certainly.” / “Indeed.” / “Totally.”
“Yeah,” Hana says to you, “beggars can’t be choosers!”
“確かに,” you say. You do enough complaining about being single as it is. Hana has hit the nail on the head.
9. そうだね (SOU DA NE)
English: “I agree.” / “That’s right.” / “Yup.”
After dinner and a few more drinks, Hana checks her phone.
“Let’s get the check,” she says. “It’s getting pretty late.”
“そうだね,” you say, seeing that it’s 11:30 and almost time for your last train home.
You hug your friends goodbye, board your train, and get a seat across from a man and woman. The two of them are holding hands and rubbing their thumbs together. The woman’s head is on the man’s shoulder. They speak in hushed tones, almost silent, with big smiles on their faces.
“いいなー,” you think as you watch them. “確かに…そうだね…”
Beggars can’t be choosers…
Now that you have nine new Japanese filler words under your belt, it’s time to get out there and practice! Instead of saying, “Umm…” or “Let’s see…” in English the next time you’re speaking, say “あのうね…” or “えっとね…” just like the Japanese do!