In my graduate classes and in and our private practice, students and clients often remark on how confident their colleagues or fellow students appear when they are participating in group discussions. They feel a ‘confidence gap’ in their own speaking and many fear they will never aspire to the same level as their U.S. counterparts.
Participating in a group discussion in your target language, especially one that is dominated by native speakers, is an extremely complex and often challenging task. However, if you are only listening and refraining from contributing to the discussion out of fear of making mistakes or having people judge your speaking ability, the others who are present will never benefit from your experience, insight, perspective or ideas. How can you close the ‘confidence gap’?
Non-native English speakers can feel insecure about speaking for many reasons, but regardless of individual challenges, there is one technical skill everyone can master to boost their command over any conversation and raise their confidence in the process. The “secret sauce” for effectively and confidently participating in group conversations in English is the use of discourse markers. Discourse markers are the signposts in any conversation. They send signals to the others speakers such as “I am about to interrupt”, “I want to add to an idea already presented”, “I do indeed understand what you just said”, “Get ready because I am going to respectfully disagree with you”, and “I don’t believe it!”, among many other functions. They are function words and phrases that do not necessarily contain meaning on their own, so looking them up in a bilingual dictionary or typing them into Google translate probably won’t help you understand how to use them. This is one of the reasons why many highly advanced speakers of English still lack appropriate command of discourse markers. As a result, their interruptions and signals in group discussions can sound awkward or unsophisticated — for example, using “please” to interrupt in all circumstances, or saying a plain “No” or “I don’t agree”, which can sound too direct or rude when something like “Perhaps we should consider . . .” would be more likely to win people over to your idea. Intuitive knowledge and use of these phrases give native English speakers an advantage in any conversation, so you should commit to learning and using them if you wish to be a full participant.
If you want to introduce these phrases into your vocabulary and strengthen your command while speaking, you should learn at least two or three phrases for common functions such as organizing your speech, responding, changing the topic, rephrasing, and interrupting. Then put them into practice in all your conversations. At first this may feel unnatural, like you are an actor performing lines, but experiencing how they contribute to the flow of natural conversation should encourage you to keep trying until they feel more natural and you feel more confident using them. For an example of discourse markers in action, see this BBC Masterclass YouTube series. Good luck!