Social Interaction, Social Context, and Language: Essays in Honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp

By Dan Isaac Slobin; Julie Gerhardt et al. | Go to book overview

15 1
THE USE OF POLITE LANGUAGE BY JAPANESE PRESCHOOL CHILDREN

Keiko Nakamura
University of California, Berkeley

Japanese is a language particularly rich in grammaticalized features in the social/relational domain. Any study of polite language in Japanese would reveal enormous differences in usage according to various factors, such as gender, age, dialect, educational background, context (e.g., topic of conversation, formality of setting), and degree of familiarity. Politeness can be both nonverbal and verbal. Nonverbal politeness includes bowing, physical distance, and posture. Verbal politeness in Japanese involves two dimensions, namely: (1) formality, which reflects the psychological and/or social distance between participants, and (2) honorific and humble language, which indicates respect and deference. The system of polite language in Japanese applies not only to pronouns (as in Indo-European languages), but also to verbs, adjectives, nouns, and conventional expressions. Furthermore, politeness is also marked by paralinguistic features such as intonation, as well as conversational strategies such as indirectness.

Speakers of a given language must have more than mere linguistic competence. To use language effectively, they must undergo language socialization and develop communicative competence ( Hymes, 1972). All languages have pragmatic rules, and politeness is an integral part of pragmatic competence. A speaker with a fluent command of a variety of politeness styles is capable of communicating effectively in a wide range of social roles. For the nonnative speaker, it is often these pragmatic subtleties that prove to be more difficult than the use of complicated vocabulary and grammatical constructions.

In order to comprehend and produce polite language, children must first learn the linguistic forms of politeness, and second, they must understand the pragmatic rules that govern each socio-interactional context ( Ervin-Tripp, 1977). Children's appropriate use of polite language is dependent upon their language acquisition, cognitive development, and social experience. The data presented here are from a study of polite speech used by Japanese preschoolers. The children, ages 3 to 5, were able to use a wide range of polite language in pragmatically appropriate ways. Research on children's acquisition of

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1
This research was supported by a Fulbright award from the Japan-United States Educational Commission, and doctoral dissertation grants from the National Science Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The original idea for this paper came from a seminar on politeness given by Susan Ervin-Tripp in the Spring of 1989.

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