The Acquisition of Politeness in the Language of Children

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1997

26 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)



1..Introduction: Politeness as a General Concept

2..Analysis about "The Developmental Perspectives on Politeness Forms
2.1Examples: Addressing the Child's Face Needs
2.2Where Children Gain their Knowledge about Politenes

3...Politeness and Persuasion in Children's Language/Dating the Acquisition of Polite Forms

4...How Children Direct Polite Forms

5...What Affects the Choice of Control Acts?
5.1Activity and Context

6...Experiments on Children's Use of Polite Forms
6.1Anderson's Hand Puppet-Study
6.2.Ervin-Tripp's and Gordon's Analysis about Politeness and Persuasion (1986)
6.3.Testing the Children's Awareness of Polite Forms
6.4.Why Was He Nicer?
6.5.The Developmental Stages in Acquiring a Politeness System Language

7.When Children's Requests are Ignored or Refused

8.Summoned Up Results


1. Introduction: Politeness as a General Concept

According to Brown and Levinson (1978) politeness is a complex system for all human puplic and social interaction with the conventional politeness forms such as requests (e.g.: May I please use your phone?), excuses (e.g.: I'm very sorry for being late!), greetings (e.g.: Good evening, my dear Mister Jones.), orders (e.g.: Could you please be so kind as to give me the sugar?), claims (e.g.: Excuse me, this is my seat.), offers (e.g.: Would you like to have a cup of coffee?), 'please' and of course 'thank you'.

In 1973, Robin Lakoff pointed out that the system of politeness follows two major rules:

1. Be clear.
2. Be polite.

The first rule includes Grice's postulates accounting efficiency, economy and informativeness:

a) Quantity: Be as informative as required.

Be no more informative than required.

b) Quality: Say only what you believe to be true.

c) Relevance: Be relevant.

d) Manner: Be perspicuous.

Don't be ambiguous.

Don't be obscure.

Be succint.

So then the question arises of how children acquire such a difficult linguistic system. How do they come to understand the different dimensions of social distance, degree of imposition and power? And how and where do children receive input data about how to use the different forms of politeness? Is there a certain order in which the different forms and strategies of politeness are acquired? Does this acquisition correlate with the ability to understand and interpretate social interaction?

This paper tries to answer the above questions with the help of different studies, partly tests on children in role play and observations of children in everyday life. Examples explain the connections between the children's use of language and the goals they attempt to reach.

2. Analysis about the "Developmental Perspectives on Politeness-Sources":

Snow, Perlman, Gleason and Hoshyar analysed 110 middle- and working-class families and their use of politeness forms towards children. They taped home-conversation, especially table conversation during meals, in order to search for forms including 'please', 'thanks' and excuses. The target children were aged 2;3 up to 5;2. The parents of these children produced a broad variety of requests, directives, compliments and sometimes insults, addressing the positive and negative face-wants of their children. In general, parents used a politeness marker every once in a hundred sentences. Mothers did not use more politeness markers than fathers, which is quite surprising as fathers are considered more distanced and 'cooler' than mothers. They are considered as being harder and not that willing to show feelings or giving up an inch of their 'superior status'. So in the common sense they don't need to be polite. There were no remarkable differences in the frequency of the use of politeness markers according to different social classes. Over 80% of all politeness forms were addressed to children.

2.1 Examples: Addressing the Child's Face Needs

Katie starts singing while eating. Her mother wants to discourage such behaviour:

Katie: Are ya sweeping, are ya sweeping Brother John, Brother John?

Mother: Okay, this is excellent, thank you. Now put it away. (Ex.1)

Katie's mother chose a very polite way, producing such a request which praises the child addressing its positive face wants instead of using a directive such as 'Shut up!'

Father: Say 'Please could I have some ketchup'.

Patricia: Please.

Father: Please may I have some ketchup.

P.: Please.

F.: Just say the whole sentence for a change: Please may I have some


P.: Please.

F.: No, we're gonna wait till you say 'Please may I have some ketchup'.

P.: Please can I have some ketchup. (Ex.2)

Here, we clearly recognize the parent's superior status. The speaker roles cannot be reversed, as no child would say things like 'No, we're gonna wait till you say 'Please may I have some ketchup?' to their father or mother. These two examples show how parents show their children what is expected by everybody in society. They teach the child about the conventional rules of society and they explain why something is wrong or right (Ex.2 and 3).

Mother: You shouldn't really put that much food in your mouth!

Child: Oop!

Mother: Because it's rude.

Child: Why?

Mother: Because people don't stuff that much food in their mouth, honey. They

only take a bite and it's o.k. They don't stuff food in their mouth. The

food is not going anyplace. It's sitting right there, waiting for you to

eat it. You can eat a little at a time and it's much healthier anyway

to fill your stomach slowlier and you'll feel better. (Ex.3)

This explanation has been done in an affectionate way so the child feels good with it. If children use wrong forms of requests, for example, like in example 2, they are usually corrected by their parents. Thus, children can "learn by doing". In the case that an adult wants to have something that is the child's own, parents tend to be very polite:

Mother: Martin, can daddy have some of your milk for his coffee, please? 'kay?

Martin: Yeah.

Mother: Thank you.

Martin: You need some milk?

Mother: No, I don't want milk in my coffee. Thank you, anyway. What kind of

cupcake do you want? Do you want to look at them and pick? (Ex.4)

The mother placed a conventionalized burden on Martin and thus used very polite terms. The rest of the utterance, she addressed his positive face want by offering a cake of his choice and by doing so, she empowered him instead of simply giving him a cake. The cake functions as some kind of reward for the child's behaviour and will be remembered in the context of polite behaviour.

2.2. Where Children Gain their Information about Politeness

Mostly, children are taught about politeness by their parents, as we saw in the examples. Because of the relative intimacy of family members, there is a lack of social distance. In principle, children have only little power in conversation. Children receive their data throughout three different sources: a) direct teaching about the nature of rules (Ex.: 'You've got to be nice to me, 'cause I'm the boss.'), b) manipulation of the dimensions in such a way that the child can observe the correlation to language forms (Ex.2), c) direct teaching of what forms to use in different situations (Ex.: Child: 'Give me that!' Mother: Don't say that. It is rude. Say: 'Could you give me that, please?').

3. Politeness and Persuasion in Children's Language / Dating the Acquisition of Polite Forms

The following dates are average dates. So, of course, they cannot be taken as appropriate for every child as children live through different developments at different times. Desire is a very early development in children. It starts well before children learn how to speak and without being able to speak, they make use of a lot of different means in order to have their need fulfilled. For example, a child wants something that is placed out of reach on a high shelf:

-child points towards the shelf, looking at its mother
-mother does not understand
-child utters sounds, makes gestures, directing its mother to the shelf, pointing
-mother asks: 'Should I give you this?'
-child nods and says something like 'yes'. (Ex.5)

So the imparative intention is already established in children before the first one-word utterances at the age of about 1. The first words are simple imparatives such as: give, want, see, because they are easy to be recognized and remembered. They are an on-record memorized routine of forms, taught by others, for stating wishes, rather than a productive inflection. Children use them in the form of interrogative requests. For example, a child wants its father or mother to give her or him something:

Child: Give? (and it points towards the desired thing)

Mother: Do you want this?

Child nodds.

Mother may give it to her/him in case it is something the child may have. (Ex.6)

This is the following stage of example 5, the further development and the next step. It should mean something like: 'Can you give me that, please?' At the age of 1;5, verb inflection starts for singular forms. Person inflection starts at the average age of 1;8, except for the plurals.

Child about itself: Johnny plays? (Ex.7)

What he meant is: 'May I please go out and play?' By two years, children have learned to use all pronouns and inflections correctly. At the average age of 2;2 children recognize a reduced tone of voice as a polite device. A concept of politeness or niceness is aquired at the age of 3, manifested in the use of 'please'.

Child: Can I have the sugar, please?

Mother: Yes, of course. (Ex.8)

Children also use interrogative requests when told to be nicer (Ex.9). Intonation starts as a possibility to stress or weaken an utterance or a request. So children find out that some speech in a certain situation may be offensive or defensive, 'bad' or 'good'. Psychologists refer to this age (around 2;5) when talking about the beginning of a morality concept. Children learn, which behaviour may be nice or offensive in the eyes of others, that is in the eyes of the hearer.

Child: Give me that.

Mother: How do you say?

Child: Could you please give me that? (Ex.9)

It may also be that the interrogative is a memorized routine as the child is always asked to use the interrogative at the second attempt, when asked to be nicer.

4 year-olds consider imperatives more polite than interrogatives. The reason for that may be that the interrogative is an early form of request and the imperative is a form children have just acquired. About one year later, children start to use formal addresses and conditional-like requests with imperfect verbs.

Child: Mr. Smith, could you please give the lemonade? (Ex.10)

They also begin to choose harsh versus soft intonation. At 6, children are able to judge conditional verbs and formal addresses perfectly. They also use down-graders or hedges. Hints as hidden requests ('It's cold in here', as a request to close the window) are not recognized before 7. It is not before this age that children start to develop strategies. For example, a family at a picnic: everybody is already in the car, except the smallest child which still wants to stay there and play. So its older sister says:

'Hurry up, sister! Get in! There's a bear behind you!' (Ex.11)


Excerpt out of 26 pages


The Acquisition of Politeness in the Language of Children
University of Hannover  (English Seminar)
2,0 (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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acquisition language children politeness Sprache Höflichkeitsformen Erwerb Kinder, Sprache der Kinder, Spracherwerb, language acquisition
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Thomas Schöll (Author), 1997, The Acquisition of Politeness in the Language of Children, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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