Muletillas: Shortcuts to Spanish fluency
In English, we could think of them as “filler words”, but this doesn’t really do justice to their function in conversation, and just how useful they can really be for us.
In this guide, we’ll look at what muletillas really are, and then get straight into the most useful muletillas that you can learn and start to use immediately.
If there is ever such a thing as a “shortcut to Spanish fluency”, it’s these…!
What are muletillas?
Really, muletilla is quite a pejorative term to describe these words. Literally translated, a muletilla is a cane, or walking stick. That summarises how some Spanish purists view them: as a support for people who can’t express themselves otherwise. Think of the English word “like” – often used as a supporting word while we gather our thoughts, or aren’t quite sure what we want to say (interestingly, the Spanish word como serves this function pretty much identically).
What these purists don’t realise, however, is that everyone uses muletillas, no matter their level of linguistic competence (even Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González was imitated in his time for his over-reliance on the phrase por consiguiente). Muletillas can be thought of as “filler words”, but actually these words serve very useful functions in discourse. They can be categorised according to this function, and that is our approach in this short guide:
These are those little words which we use to join our thoughts together, and try to shape and structure our overall conversation.
Ways of giving yourself a quick break to think, and re-phrase or re-structure a sentence.
Speakers use lots of subtle clues to gain tacit agreement with their conversation partner, including these muletillas.
There are many muletillas whose main role is to underline some point.
Spanish conversation fillers which you can drop in to check that your speaking partner is following you, and engaging in the conversation!
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Category 1: Extend and Structure Conversation
En fin – “In short, in brief, all in all”
This is sprinkled liberally into conversations, and can be used at the end of a story or sentence to provide a kind of finality.
Así que… – “So”
Used to relate two points to each other, connecting the second to the first (ie, “idea one, and as a consequence, idea two”).
Speakers also tend to use it at the end of their sentences, as a kind of explanatory after-note. The consequence is implied:
Lis no podía venir, así que…
Lis couldn’t come, so… [implied – so, you’re left with me]
Por eso – “That’s why, for that reason, because of that”
This can be combined with así que for a double filler: Así que por eso.
Y tal – “And so on, and all that stuff”
This acts as the equivalent of saying “etc”.
Category 2: Buy time to think and re-explain
Pues – “Well”, “so”
Pues is used by almost all speakers as a verbal tic – it seems to be the word people say when they are thinking what to say next.
Bueno – “Good”, “ok”
As a muletilla, bueno can be used almost interchangeably with pues, and is often combined: “Bueno, pues…”. Think how often you use “well” in English – pues is the Spanish equivalent.
Entonces – “then”, “so”
Entonces can be used to sequence events (as in the meaning of “I did this, then that…”). As a muletilla, think of your use of “so then” or “right then” to start sentences. Entonces is used in a similar way by Spanish speakers.
O sea –“I mean”, “or rather”, “in other words”
This little phrase is used a huge amount by all speakers, but especially younger generations. It can be used as a general filler, but is also a way of restructuring a thought or idea.
Es como – “It’s like”
Again, this short filler can be used to reconstruct or express an idea in a different way. Also, think of how (typically, younger) English speakers use “like”, as in: “It’s like… Pretty good”. Es como is the Spanish way to do that.
A ver – “let’s see”
This muletilla is used pretty much exactly as English speakers use “let’s see” – as a filler to buy more time.
All of the above Spanish fillers can be used in combination, and you will sound more like a native speaker. Bear in mind that if you string too many of these together, you can sound very hesitant! A couple of typical examples:
A ver, es como…
Category 3: Finding agreement
Vale – “OK”, “fine”, “right”, “good”
Used to express agreement, often used multiple times: ¡vale, vale!
This tends to be more common in Spain, but is understood and used in all of the Spanish speaking world.
Ya – “already”, “now”
This is an example of when a muletilla doesn’t really serve its dictionary definition. When used as an interjection, ya means something like “yes” – basically a sound of agreement.
Verdad – “true”
Very commonly used, another word that you can use to agree with any points that your conversation partner is making.
¿Sabes? – “you know”
Speakers sprinkle sabes in their conversation to check that people are following them. Also often heard: ¿sabes qué? – “you know what?”
¿Cierto? – “Right?”
Can be used whether you are speaking or listening (as an interjection), showing that you agree with your partner, or checking whether something is right.
¿Sí o no? – “Yes or no?”
Same meaning as ¿cierto?, but typically used more in Colombia.
¡Claro! – “Of course”
Can be used when speaking or listening, and shows that you agree with whatever point is being made.
Category 4: Add emphasis
Fijate – “Notice this”
Spanish speakers often use this as a way of saying “look – pay attention, this is important”. It’s usually used at the start of the sentence, just before you introduce some new idea. It comes from the verb fijarse, “to pay attention to”, “to watch” (think of it as literally “fix” your attention).
Digamos – “Let’s say”, “so to speak”
This is used a lot, by many speakers (I probably over-use this one!). You can use it to hedge an idea – just as in English, when you say “so to speak”, it can be used to earn tacit agreement (ie, “let’s agree”), or when you’re not completely sure of your idea, or want to hedge your opinion slightly (ie, “he wasn’t very happy, so to speak”).
Obvio – “Obviously”, “yeah”
Bear in mind that the literal translation for obvio can sound a little more abrupt in English, perhaps implying stupidity on the speaker’s part. That’s not generally the case in Spanish (although, this does depend on the context, of course). Obvio is used more to express your agreement with a speaker’s idea, implying that it’s clearly, obviously true.
Category 5: Check comprehension
¿Entiendes? – “Do you understand”
Literally, “do you understand”, from the verb entender (this uses the tú conjugation – be sure to conjugate based on who you are speaking with). Expected answer would be a nod, or quick sí.
¿Me explico? – “Do you know what I mean? Am I clear?”
I have to admit, when I first heard this muletilla I found it quite patronising. It reminded me of the way teachers rebuke their students, (“Am I explaining myself clearly!?”), but I’ve heard it enough in Spanish, and from enough different speakers, to realise that there is no intent to patronise. It’s simply a way of saying “do you follow me” – I’m not sure I’m explaining myself well”.
¿Ves? – “You see?”
From the verb ver, “to see”. Just as in English, “seeing” is a metaphor for understanding, and its use in Spanish is the same as in English.
¿Sí ves? – “Do you see?”
Something you’ll hear a lot in Colombia, with the same meaning as above.
What are some other Spanish muletillas that you have heard and use? Let us know in the comments below!