The Psychology of Language: How Humans Convey Emotion through Speech
by Allie Travis
Scientists define emotional intelligence as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others”. The skill of emotional intelligence involves being emotionally aware of the emotions of oneself and others, being capable of harnessing emotions (oneself and others), and managing or regulating emotions to fit situations.
Can being aware of, interpreting, and managing emotions impact language learning ability? You bet. In one study, researchers found that individuals high in emotional Intelligence were better at English language learning because they are more proficient listeners, able to manage their own stresses and can easily adapt themselves within the context of the text they are reading.
Human speech conveys much more than linguistic meaning. Listening to different aspects of speech can also provide useful information about emotion. In fact, the emotional content of speech is perceivable even when the utterance is emotionally ambiguous or when the listener doesn’t know the language. To become more aware of the emotions of others, take note of the following vocal elements of speech delivery:
Pitch pertains to the relative highness or lowness of the human voice. In general, women tend to have higher pitched voices than men. Alternating inflection adds interest to a message and keeps an audience intrigued. On the contrary, no inflection, or a limited range in pitch, conveys a lack of emotion or indifference to the message (or listener), also known as monotone.
Volume is how loudly or quietly a person speaks. Volume is used to denote interest and is frequently raised by speakers as they argue their points. A person may state an aside in a lower voice that can indicate mockery. Furthermore, volume can also clue the listener in on emotional state and personality. For instance, a person speaking his opinion clearly and loudly may feel confident, while one whose voice is low and nearly incomprehensible may feel insecure.
Rate involves the speed at which a message is delivered. The most expressive speech includes a varied rate exhibited by emphasis on some words and natural pauses. A slower rate might be indicative of sadness or fatigue. In comparison, a faster rate might be suggestive of excitement or anger. Context and facial expressions can be used to further interpret a person’s rate of speech.
Tone refers to the emotional content, or attitude, of our voices. It’s not the word content of our speech, but the method in which we say those words. It involves pragmatic communication, which is the concept that words can take on completely different meanings beyond their traditional definitions. Tone also refers to intent. Sarcasm, for example, is an insincere tone of voice that appears to be praising but is really taunting. It can be deciphered through the surrounding context, such as when a man makes a mistake, he says, “That’s just great! I’m such a genius!”
These verbal elements of speech delivery are used in conjunction with one another to add (or subtract) energy and expression to the spoken word. Language learners can pay closer attention to those around them as they speak – and to their own vocal variety – to become more aware of emotions and increase emotional intelligence.
About the Author
Veranda Hillard-Charleston is Chief Contributing Editor for a popular Psychology Grad portal. Veranda received her Master’s in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern State University of Louisiana. With more than five years of experience as a trained mental health professional, she regularly writes for major