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June 22, 2005 - Emotion in Words - 2005-06-24

Today on Wordmaster with Rosanne Skirble, the emotions behind the words we say.

RS: Think of how many emotions our voices are able to convey. English teacher and Wordmaster contributor Lida Baker says meaning changes by modifying the tone of voice in subtle ways. Take this simple sentence:

LIDA BAKER: "The words are: 'you cut your hair.' Now I am going to quiz you, Rosanne. I am going to say those four words in certain ways and you tell me what the emotion is that I am trying to convey. Ready?"

RS: "OK. Ready."

LIDA BAKER: "OK here we go:

"You cut your hair!

RS: "Surprise!"

LIDA BAKER: "Yes! How about this one: 'You cut your hair?'"

RS: "You don't sound like you are too happy with me. You don't like my haircut."

LIDA BAKER: "Right. Or what about this one? 'YOU CUT YOUR HAIR!' I'm sorry for shouting. Let me give you another example. The words are: 'I got 75 percent on a test.' All right, here we go again: (HAPPY TONE) 'I got 75 percent on a test.'"

RS: "You sound like the happiest (person) in town.

LIDA BAKER: "That's right. This is a student who has to work really hard to get average grades. So this student is quite pleased about the 75 percent, or else it was just a very hard test and nobody did very well and the person is just happy to have passed it."

RS: "Right because 75 percent isn't the greatest grade."

LIDA BAKER: "No. How about this one? [SURPRISED TONE] 'I got 75 percent on a test?'"

RS: "You should have gotten 100 percent, which means that you should be surprised, at least in that sentence it sounds like it."

LIDA BAKER: "Yeah. That's what I intended! Or, [SAD, DISAPPOINTED TONE] 'I got 75 percent on a test.'"

RS: "You are not happy. You are disappointed with your results.

LIDA BAKER: "Yeah. OK so, you are able to read me very well, even though you can't see my face and there is no story surrounding any one of those sentences. So it is quite amazing that you knew exactly what I was trying to convey without any other clues."

So how can a student of English as a foreign language learn these clues? Lida Baker says you can use visual cues - like facial expressions and gestures - or audio cues like pitch, volume and intonation.

LIDA BAKER: "I was thinking for example about disappointment, and I noticed that when I said 'you cut your hair' the intonation tends to be flat throughout that slightly glides down at the end. 'You cut your hair.' And confusion can often be expressed in the form of a question, don't you think?"

RS: "You cut your hair?"

LIDA BAKER: "Or, I got 75 percent on a test? -- go ahead."

RS: "I was just going to ask you, you know we have pitch and volume and intonation -- three cues that we can watch for -- but as you said it is very subtle and very hard for English learners to get. How can teachers help out?"

LIDA BAKER: "The first thing the teacher really needs to do is to teach students to look at context clues that can help students derive meaning from a situation such as people's facial expressions. I think knowing the relationship between speakers is helpful, and of course listening to what the people have been talking about prior to the utterance."

RS: "What I hear you saying, though, is that context is so important and might be the key (to understanding) here."

LIDA BAKER: "Yes it is."

RS: "Now, when you don't have a context, like when you are talking on the telephone, what are you to do?"

LIDA BAKER: "A valuable teaching aid is to bring in video clips, just little segments and have students look at them and try to analyze the emotional content of this little small segment. First use only the audio and try to figure out what the speakers mean, and then add the visual and see what additional cues are provided when they have the visual available to them and are trying to figure out logically what the speakers could be feeling. And it just takes an enormous amount of practice."

RS: "Practice, practice and more practice."

LIDA BAKER: "Right, and I am always advocating role playing. Put the students in pairs and give them the same script. But one pair of students, give them the instruction that they are to express disappointment or sadness."

RS: "And the other (pair) approval."

LIDA BAKER: "Exactly. That's great. And then have the other students in the class guess what is going on. So then it becomes very interactive."

RS: "That's great!"

LIDA BAKER: "And not to forget, (use) compensation strategies. Where all else fails, ask the person, 'What do you mean?'"

Lida Baker teaches in the American Language Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is featured in the Wordmaster archives at Our e-mail address is Avi Arditti will be back next week. I'm Rosanne Skirble.