Compliment Responses in Different Languages and the Problem of Sociocultural Transfer in SLA

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)


Table of Contents


1. American English Compliments

2. Compliment Responses Strategies in American English

3. Compliment Response Strategies in Chinese

4. Compliment Response Strategies in German

5. Sociocultural Transfer in SLA

6. Teaching Sociocultural Competence




In most speech communities, the speech act of complimenting is a well established politeness strategy. While the giving of and responding to compliments can be regarded as rather universal across different languages and cultures, the form, frequency and function of compliments and compliment responses significantly varies. In the following chapters, I would like to compare English compliment responses to realizations of the same speech act in Chinese and German.

Since the 1970s, sociolinguists have turned towards research on communicative competence, thereby focussing on native speaker’s performance of speech acts (e.g. compliments, apologies, requests, complaints etc.). In the last three decades, the speech event of complimenting and compliment responding has been one of the major areas on which sociolinguistic research has focussed on. There are extensive studies on this respective speech act in American English (e.g. Pomerantz 1978, Manes and Wolfson 1980) as well as comparative cross-cultural research on complimenting behavior, examining the differences in speech act realization between variants of English (American /Irish , e.g. Schneider 1999; American /South African, e.g. Herbert 1989), and between English and other languages (Chinese, e.g. Chen 1993; German, e.g. Golato 2002). These studies of communicative competence make apparent that communicating effectively and efficiently in a language requires more than just linguistic knowledge; the ability to use this linguistic knowledge appropriately in the given sociocultural context is also essential. Learners with insufficient pragmatic knowledge frequently transfer patterns from their native language into the foreign language. Second language teaching profits from studies in communicative competence because it provides teachers with information on realization strategies concerning certain speech acts in different languages.

1. American English Compliments

The word compliment is defined as “a remark that expresses admiration of someone or something” and to pay somebody a compliment means to “tell someone that they look nice, have done something well, etc” (Longman Web Dictionary). In human interaction, complimenting primarily functions as a positive politeness strategy, which creates and maintains solidarity between the participants. By uttering a favorable opinion towards the interlocutor, speakers demonstrates that they share the addressee’s interest or taste concerning a certain aspect. Linguist Janet Holmes describes the function of this communication strategy as follows:

A compliment is a speech act which explicitly or implicitly attributes credit to someone other than the speaker, usually the person addressed, for some ‘good’ […] which is positively valued by the speaker and the hearer. (Holmes 1986: 465)

Studies of the speech act of complimenting in different languages reveal that compliment topics are mainly the addressee’s appearance, possessions, abilities, performance, skills, etc. Compliments, unlike greetings or thanks, are not required at certain points within a conversation and occur rather spontaneously. However, they may be expected in situations, where another person displays a new hairdo, outfit or possession for the first time. In such a case, the absence of a compliment may be interpreted as an indicator of disapproval.

An important aspect is this speech act’s “freedom of occurrence” (Manes and Wolfson 1980: 394) in discourse. Compliments can occur relatively independent from previous utterances within a conversation. An interchange of compliment and response can either form an entire speech event, or it may also be a part of a longer conversation. Especially in American English, the social strategy of complimenting is often used as a replacement or preact for another polite speech act, e.g. greeting, congratulating, apologizing etc. In their function as “social lubricates” (Holmes 1986: 486), compliments can serve as a method to open and sustain a conversation with a new acquaintance. Particularly in friendly small talk, it can introduce a neutral subject, which persons with limited information about each other can easily chat about. A great majority of compliments are addressed to people of similar age and status as the compliment giver; compliments between friends, relatives and colleagues are more frequent.

Research studies show that compliments mostly have a formulaic and repetitive structure, which helps these speech acts to be identified within a conversation and to produce their intended effect on the addressee. Mostly, speakers use a limited range of lexical items functioning as positive semantic carriers, and the same syntactic patterns and structures to convey the compliments. The study of Manes and Wolfson, based on 686 American English compliments, detected that “the overwhelming majority of compliments contain one of a highly restricted set of adjectives and verbs” (Manes and Wolfson 1981: 116). 80% of the compliments in their data have an adjectival semantic carrier and 67.6% out of these used one of the following 5 adjectives: nice, good, beautiful, pretty or great. In compliments containing a positive semantic verb, speakers use the verbs like and love in 86% of all cases. According to syntax analysis, 85% of the American English compliments within the data collection of Wolfson and Manes can be classified into three major syntactic patterns:

1. NP is/looks (really) ADJ (e.g., ‘Your hair looks nice’)
2. I (really) like/love NP (e.g., ‘I love your hair’)
3. PRO is (really) (a) ADJ NP (e.g., ‘That’s a nice piece of work’) [1]

(Manes and Wolfson 1981: 120)

2. Compliment Responses in American English

A compliment is a positive assessment towards the recipient, which usually has an acknowledgement in the shape of an acceptance or rejection as a response. This conversational interchange is also referred to as an “adjacency pair” (Herbert 1989: 7) because the second utterance is temporally and topically related to the first. The interaction chain of compliment and compliment response has the following structure:

1. A compliments B
2. B responds/acknowledges that A has spoken. (Herbert 1989: 5)

According to textbooks for learners of English as well as instructions that parents give to their children, the “correct” routine answer to a compliment is thank you. However, research on compliment responses reveals that speakers use a great variety of response strategies deviating from the prescriptive norm of thanking. Speakers often claim to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed when responding to received compliments. In her research work on American English compliment responses, Anita Pomerantz (1978) describes the responder’s dilemma as a conflict between two contradictory politeness maxims: (a) to agree with the complimenter and (b) to avoid self-praise. Responses are mostly formulated as second assessments either agreeing or disagreeing with the previous compliment. The preferred reaction is an agreement with the complimenter, which is associated with the acceptance of the compliment. This model behavior maintains the solidarity created between the speakers. However, this polite norm results in praise of self, which is rather considered as boastful behavior, minimizing sympathy and solidarity. Therefore, speakers try to avoid self-praise through disagreement, self-denigration and compliment rejection. Consequently, if compliment receivers agree with their conversational partner, they disregard the principle of avoiding self-praise, and if they modestly reject the compliment, the agreement maxim is violated.

Studies on American English compliment responses reveal that speakers use agreement/acceptance and disagreement/rejection strategies, as well as answer types that form a compromise between the conflicting maxims of agreement and avoidance of self-praise. Building on the previous work of Pomerantz, Herbert (1989) categorized American compliment responses, collected for a comparative study of this speech act in American and South African English, into 12 response strategies.

Compliment agreements were performed in three different strategies: acceptance, comment history and transfer. Within the category of acceptance, speakers either used appreciation tokens, e.g. “Thank you” (11), which are semantically independent from the given compliment, or comment acceptances, e.g. “Yeah, it’s cool.” (12), related to the compliment giver’s utterance. In a few instances, praise upgrades, e.g. “You’re not the first and you’re not the last.” as a response to “I like that shirt you’re wearing.” (13), occurred as a means of acceptance. By increasing the complimentary force, this strategy may violate the maxim of avoiding self-praise, but often these answers have a joking connotation and are therefore not taken literally. The second category, comment history, e.g. “I got it for the trip to Arizona.” (13), is a response type in which the compliment recipient does not accept the praise personally and provides impersonal details about the praised aspect which are often irrelevant and instead serve as a technique of introducing another topic. The third category, transfer, is further divided into two subtypes: In the response type of reassignment, the praise is either redirected to a third person, e.g. “My brother gave it to me.” (14) or the complimented object itself, e.g. “It really knitted itself.” (14). In the subtype of return, e.g. “Thanks, you too.” (14), the compliment recipient offers praise to the compliment giver.


[1] Notes:NP = noun phrase, ADJ = adjective, PRO = pronoun

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Compliment Responses in Different Languages and the Problem of Sociocultural Transfer in SLA
Free University of Berlin  (Institute for English Philology)
Second Language Aquisition
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
524 KB
Speech Act Analysis, Compliment Response Strategies in English, Chinese and German, Problem of Sociocultural Transfer in SLA, Teaching sociocultural competence (in reference to complement responses)
Compliment, Responses, Different, Languages, Problem, Sociocultural, Transfer, Second, Language, Aquisition
Quote paper
Natalie Lewis (Author), 2003, Compliment Responses in Different Languages and the Problem of Sociocultural Transfer in SLA, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 4/25/2010

    the article sounds very interesting..

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