You’re in a group, having a casual Spanish conversation.
Everyone’s talking at once.
It doesn’t matter how experienced you are in Spanish—how much listening, writing or speaking practice you’ve had, how well you can hold one-to-one conversations or how many funky idioms you’ve learned—making contributions to group conversations in Spanish is really challenging for language learners.
Why Spanish Speakers Always Interrupt Each Other
When you’re starting to learn any language, it’s normal to spend a lot of time saying very little when you’re in a group of people. Conversations bounce quickly around the group and the topic can change completely before you’ve even decided what you want to say.
Then, when you finally do say something, you get interrupted.
I’ve found it really disheartening. I’d finally pluck up the courage to say something in a casual group conversation, only for someone to cut me off before I’d finished.
It can be tempting to give up talking altogether.
However, it’s important to remember that (very generally speaking) the culture when speaking casual Spanish is: Keep talking when it’s your turn to speak.
But what should you say?
Muletillas: The Secret Weapon of Spanish Speakers
Native Spanish speakers have a whole load of short, casual phrases called muletillas.
One of their many uses is to attract attention so that you can start speaking. Some muletillas indicate that you’ve got more to say on a subject, to avoid being interrupted while you pause to think and breathe.
Every culture has different ways of conducting conversations. Finnish speakers, for example, leave a long gap after someone finishes speaking in case the speaker has something else to add. What a contrast to Spanish!
To master Spanish like a native, you need to stock up on some useful muletillas and get used to “interrupting” people while they speak.
Also, don’t be afraid to repeat exactly the same phrase several times until you’ve successfully grabbed the listener’s attention. I admit I’m still terrible at this, even after years in such situations—but things are looking better thanks to muletillas.
11 Casual Spanish Filler Words to Keep Hold of the Conversation
These 11 muletillas are great for holding people’s attention, allowing you to breathe and think while indicating to the listener that you’re going to keep speaking.
Numbers 10 and 11 on this list are great “escape phrases” for when you’ve messed up the Spanish and want to start your point from scratch.
But first! A note on regional use: We’re really getting into the heart of “Slang Spanish” here. That’s great, because it means that you’ll sound more like a native when you use muletillas. However, it also means that there can be huge variations across regions, and even between different social groups.
For example, some say “o sea” (number 7) in a mock posh voice in Madrid, and if you do so you’ll probably get a laugh from many locals.
Due to the bias of my personal knowledge, some of the muletillas here might be specific to the Spanish (or castellano) spoken in central Spain. Jump to the end of the post to find how you can seek out muletillas that are used most in the region where you are.
Apart from just meaning “good,” saying “bueno…” can be used to mean “well…” during conversation. It’s a good starting word to use while you think because you can stretch it out by elongating the e sound.
As noted, to use bueno in this hesitating or pensive way, you have to stretch the e sound out, saying it more like “bueeeeno.” You can also use it to express uncertainty, especially when accompanied by a shrug.
Giving you time to think:
¿Qué habéis hecho esta mañana? — What have you (guys) done this morning?
Bueno… fuimos al parque y luego… — Well… we went to the park, and later…
¿Te ha gustado la peli? — Did you like the movie?
Bueeno… la verdad es que no mucho. — Well… to tell you the truth, not much.
2. Así que… / Entonces…
Así que and entonces both mean “so” as in, “in which case.”
They’re useful muletillas to use while you gather your thoughts before speaking.
Entonces signals to the listener that you’re going to continue speaking. However, así que, like bueno, gives you even more time to think because it can be lengthened by stretching the final e sound into así queeee.
Stretching out the sound while you think:
Vale, la cuenta ya está pagada. Así queee… ¿vamos o qué? — Okay, the bill’s already paid. So… are we going or what?
3. Vale, vale, vale
Repetition is used a lot by many Spanish speakers. No more is this evident than when you’re using vale (okay) to mean “okay, I totally understand what you’re saying.”
You’ve got to be a little careful with this one. You don’t want to space out or put too much stress on your repetitions of the word vale, otherwise you can sound like the speaker is boring you (imagine a child saying “okay okay okay” to their nagging mother).
Just lightly repeat the word in a quick stream while nodding your head.
When listening to someone giving you directions to a place:
Vale… vale, vale, vale, vale… sí… sí, te entiendo. — Okay… yep, yep, yep, yep… right… yes, I understand you.
4. ¿Vale? / ¿Me entiendes?
Vale can also be used as a question. In this case, saying “¿vale?” means “you get me?” Similarly, you can say “¿me entiendes?” which means “do you understand me?” or even just “¿entiendes?” for “do you understand?”
Keep in mind that we’ve used the informal conjugation of entender, since the goal of this is to teach you a casual expression to use with peers and friends. If you need to go more formal, use the formal “you” or “you all” conjugation.
Put an upward inflection on the word to make it into a question and try making eye contact with the listener to make sure they’ve understood.
However, if you have more to say, don’t wait too long for them to answer as someone may think you’ve finished and take the opportunity to jump in and start speaking themselves.
When giving directions:
Primero, sigues por esta calle, ¿vale?, y en la esquina giras a la derecha. Mira, allí hay un cartel que dice que no puedes entrar, pero sí que puedes entrar en esa calle, ¿me entiendes? De allí… — First, you follow this road, okay?, and at the corner you turn right. Look, there’s a sign there that says you can’t go in but, yes, you can go into that street, you understand me? From there…
5. (Vamos) a ver
The phrases a ver and vamos a ver are used in quite a few ways in Spanish, including as exclamations or just simply to mean “let’s see,” as in:
Vamos a ver lo que pasa. — Let’s see what happens.
As a muletilla, it’s a useful starting phrase when you want to explain yourself or sum up the situation.
This muletilla gives you great room to breathe, if you want it. Just say “a ver…” or “vamos a ver…,” breathe in audibly, look thoughtful and start to speak. If people are still talking, you can repeat “a ver” multiple times until you get their attention (or until you lose the battle to someone else).
A ver… no quiero decir que no sea un buen actor. — Look… I’m not saying he’s not a good actor.
Summing up the situation:
Vamos a ver… ella ha dicho que sí, pero él dice que no. ¿Verdad? — Let’s see… so she has said yes, but he says no. Is that right?
6. La cosa es (que)…
This muletilla just means “the thing is (that).” This handy phrase can be used in almost any situation, mostly because it doesn’t really mean much.
You can take a moment to think after saying “la cosa es…” because it’s clear you’re going to continue. You can also repeat it to attract attention in a group conversation.
Attracting attention in a heated discussion:
La cosa es… La cosa es… que la gente que tiene el poder no quiere cambiar la situación. — The thing is… the thing is… that the people who have the power don’t want to change the situation.
7. O sea
O sea means, literally, “or is.” However, as a muletilla it’s used to say “I mean” or “or rather.” You can use it when you realize that what you just said isn’t entirely correct and you want to add extra information.
Lo que pasa es que me he dado cuenta de que nunca he viajado en tren, o sea, sí que he viajado en tren pero solo en cercanías, no en uno de largo recorrido. — It’s just that I’ve realized that I’ve never traveled on a train, I mean, yes, I’ve traveled on a train, but only on regional trains, not on a long distance one.
One use of pues (well) is a bit like the use of bueno (see the very first muletilla on this list) in that you can elongate the sound and use it to express uncertainty while thinking.
In my opinion, the longer you stretch the e sound, the more likely it is that you’re going to respond in the negative but I’m sure you could find an example that proves me wrong.
It sits really well when followed by no (no) or sí (yes).
Like bueno, you can stretch out pues by elongating the e sound into pueeees.
Responding in the negative after thinking:
¿A qué hora viene el chico? — What time’s the guy coming?
Pueees… no lo sé. — Well… I don’t know.
Responding in the positive:
¿Te apetece un café? — Do you fancy a coffee?
Pues sí. — Well (now you mention it) yes.
9. Pues nada
Pues nada, which means “well, nothing,” is used a lot by the Spanish including simply as an easy response to “¿qué estás haciendo?” (what are you doing?).
One helpful use as a muletilla is when you use it to gracefully jump forward in a story you’re telling, without having to actually explain the passage of time.
Using to jump a story forward (in time):
Y el hombre que me entrevistó me dijo “gracias por venir, te llamamos” y… pues nada, no me han llamado… así que… no creo que me den el puesto. — And the guy who was interviewing me said “thanks for coming, we’ll call you” and… well, they haven’t called me… so… I don’t think they’ll give me the position.
10. Quiero decir (que) / es decir
These are great ones to use when you’ve totally messed up what you were saying in Spanish and you want to start the whole point again.
Quiero decir (que) means “I want to say (that)” and es decir is a bit like “which is to say.”
To correct yourself after an unsuccessful explanation:
No me estás entendiendo, ¿verdad? Quiero decir que el hombre, es decir, el fontanero, no pudo hacer el trabajo porque… — You’re not understanding me, right? What I want to say is that the man, which is to say, the plumber, couldn’t do the job because…
11. A lo que me refiero es…
Another great muletilla to use when you’ve messed up is “a lo que me refiero es.” This means “what I mean is” or more literally “what I’m referring to is.”
To correct yourself after an unsuccessful explanation:
Mira. A lo que me refiero es que la gente de aquí no entiende lo que dice la gente de allí. ¿Me entiendes? — Look. What I mean is that the people from here don’t understand what the people from there are talking about. You understand me?
How to Seek Out Your Own Muletillas (and a Disclaimer)
There are thousands of muletillas in Spanish. You may have noticed a few other ones that I’ve sneaked into the examples.
Everyone has their favorite muletillas, though most don’t realize they’re using them when they speak. Although lists like this one (or this one) are a great start, the best way to find muletillas is to have casual Spanish conversations with real people and “collect” the muletillas you like the most.
Disclaimer: The examples and uses I’ve given here are only some of the many possibilities for using these words as muletillas. There are also huge regional variations.
When I discussed this post with native speakers, we easily came up with seven completely different meanings using only the word bueno as a muletilla in under two minutes. The only differences between them were slight changes in pronunciation, repetition, body language and elongation of different vowel sounds.
Always keep your ears open for new muletillas, making sure to pay attention to exactly how they’re being used.
Do that and you can’t go wrong!
Alex Owen-Hill is a European freelance writer. He writes about science, travel, voice-use, language and any of the hundred other things he’s passionate about. Check out his website at www.AlexOwenHill.co.uk.
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