Listening for Tone & Attitude

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  • 0:01 Tone, Attitude & Certainty
  • 0:33 Volume, Pitch & Speed
  • 2:35 Word Choice
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

When you're learning English, listening for a speaker's tone or attitude can be even harder than listening for meaning - here are some tips for how to make it work.

Tone, Attitude & Certainty

When you're learning to understand spoken English, you won't just have to understand what the speaker says. To really get the point, often you'll also have to pick up on clues about the speaker's tone, attitude or degree of certainty. In other words, it's not just about what someone says; it's about how she feels about it. Did she say it with a confident tone, an angry tone, a defeated tone or something else? In this lesson, you'll get some tips and practice for figuring all of that out.

Volume, Pitch and Speed

Before we even get into the words themselves, we'll cover three clues that you can get just from listening to the sound of the speaker's voice: volume, pitch and speed. One big clue that you can listen for is volume. Volume refers to how loudly or quietly a speaker is talking. In English, volume can indicate several different things:

  • Emphasis - if a speaker thinks she's saying something important, she'll probably say it louder. In the middle of a paragraph at normal volume, a sentence spoken more loudly stands out.
  • Strong emotion - if a speaker has a very strong opinion on something, her volume will probably increase. This is true whether the emotion is positive or negative. People shout when they're angry, but also when they're excited.
  • Certainty - people who are sure of their opinions tend to speak more loudly. On the other hand, people who aren't confident tend to speak more quietly.

A second clue is pitch. Pitch is how high or low the speaker's voice is. Rising pitch toward the end of a sentence in English generally indicates a question, as in 'Did you get the milk?' But, if a speaker's voice rises in pitch toward the end of all his sentences, even when they aren't questions, it can show uncertainty. For example: 'I was thinking about the book we read for class, and I thought maybe James isn't supposed to be the villain…? Maybe he's supposed to be morally gray…? He's not good or bad…?'

A third clue is speed, or how fast the speaker is talking. In general, any change from a steady speaking pace indicates that something important is going on. For example:

  • Slowing down can indicate emphasis because it's a sign that the speaker wants you to pay attention to every single word.
  • Speeding up can indicate strong emotion because English speakers tend to talk faster when they get excited about something.

Word Choice

Now that we've covered volume, pitch and speed as ways of clueing you in to the author's tone or attitude, it's time to cover the ways that word choice can indicate attitude or certainty. First up: pay attention to qualifiers. Qualifiers are words that soften the severity of a statement. Examples are 'a little,' 'kind of,' 'sort of,' 'more or less,' 'maybe,' 'not so much' and other similar words. If a speaker uses a lot of qualifiers, she probably isn't very certain about what she's saying. If a speaker doesn't use qualifiers, she probably is certain.

Second, listen for ways that the speakers say outright how they're feeling. This may sound obvious, but it's not obvious when you're actually listening to a conversation. Here's an example:

SPEAKER A: Did you hear that John and Susannah eloped?

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