You may not be aware of how many times you’ve understood what someone has said, not because you’ve heard the words, but because you have recognized the tone, or music, of the words. Try a small experiment – say “Are you alright?” without moving your mouth at all. What should have come out is a musical (or perhaps not very musical) tone of voice which others would probably recognize as “Are you alright?” or the shortened version “you alright?” If you liked that experiment, and it works, try doing the same with “Where are you?” and “I don´t know!”
The point of the experiment is to illustrate that we tune into the tone of a language almost as much as the words themselves, and in some cases more. How many times have you said something like “I didn´t hear exactly what he said, but by his tone he was pretty annoyed about it”. We could probably have a good guess at whatever was said and certainly respond appropriately, without having heard a single word.
So, tone of voice is a very important ingredient in this strange world of communication. Sometimes people ask me about whether a particular Spanish word is considered an insult or not. A good example is the word “tonto” which means silly or stupid. Whether it is an insult, or not, entirely depends on the tone of our voice (as well as the context in which it’s said). It could be an affectionate compliment in the right circumstances or it could be something that would invite a punch on the nose. In other words, the insult is not in the word itself at all, but in the intention behind the word, expressed in the tone of voice.
Now, here a problem arises because the tone of a native English speaker is markedly different from a native Spanish speaker’s tone of voice. We often misunderstand what we hear, irrespective of whether we’ve understood the words or not, because the tone has sounded unfriendly. Perhaps a receptionist tells us to wait or a shop assistant tells us to come back later in a way we find offensive. It is quite possible that absolutely no offence is intended at all, and that we are simply misinterpreting the tone because we are judging it by the standards of an English speaker.
In general terms, the Spanish tone of voice is harsher and also more monotonous. To their ears we sound much more “sing-songy” and softer in our speech, which can sometimes put us at a disadvantage!