Strangely enough, in all my years of language teaching, using text books and studying theory, I have never come across a single reference to the issue of volume. I think this is very odd, especially when you consider that it’s one of the first things you notice about speakers of other languages, and one of the cardinal errors some people make when speaking their own language to foreigners. There are undoubtedly different norms about acceptable volume in different languages.
I think that few people would disagree with me if I were to say that the Spanish on the whole are loudly spoken. This can come as somewhat of a shock to us when we first arrive in the country and many people have told me that they thought that some ordinary inoffensive Spanish family was having a full-blown row, when in fact they were just discussing what to eat. We associate loudness with rudeness and the habit that a few Brits have of shouting louder when they haven´t been understood makes the rest of us cringe with embarrassment.
It may not have occurred to you that the issue of volume also works the other way. In other words, if we think we’re normal and the Spanish are loud, we must assume that the Spanish regard themselves as normal and so therefore, we probably come across as a nation of whisperers. Of course I’m generalising as there are some very noisy Brits too, but if we combine our normally low volume with the fact that our nervousness in speaking Spanish or confronting an unknown situation also has the effect of making our voices quieter, the end result can make us impossible for a Spanish person to hear.
You may well have been in a situation where you have practised your Spanish phrase, pronounced it as best you can and still had someone look at you strangely and say a loud “Eh?” Your first reaction is to assume that you have said the wrong word or mispronounced something, but the problem might well be that you are simply speaking too quietly. Next time this happens, try repeating the phrase at double the volume!
Of course this brings us back to the whole question of confidence. We are afraid of looking a fool by saying the wrong thing, but that is perhaps better than not being heard at all. Our other problem is that many of us were brought up not to shout, but in fact speaking loudly and shouting are not the same thing. The art of turning up the volume is not to screech or become aggressive, but to breathe deeply, fill the lungs and project our voices like actors or opera singers on a stage, as the Spanish seem to do without any effort at all.