Despite the evidence that infants are sensitive to facial cues and prosody for the detection of emotion, we have contradictory evidence regarding the use of these cues by older preschool and school children when inferring both emotional and politeness stance. This study assessed preschool aged children’s sensitivity to intonational and facial cues signalling a speaker’s polite stance in requestive speech acts with controlled lexical and contextual materials. Thirty-six 3-year-old American English-speaking children performed a forced-choice decision task which investigated whether children at this age use pitch and/or facial cues to infer a speaker’s affective stance in either audio-only, visual-only or audio-visual presentation modalities, when lexical cues are controlled for. Results showed that (a) children at three years can infer a speaker’s polite stance equally well in all three conditions (audio-only, visual-only and audio-visual) and thereby (b) unlike previous research, in the present task both intonation and facial cues are equally strong cues in children’s understanding of a speaker’s polite stance in requestive speech acts. The authors discuss especially the implications of this early use of intonation to detect politeness, relating it to other previous research on children’s ability to infer meaning from pitch.
We would like to express our gratitude to Faith Stagge, whose assistance in collecting the data at the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio, was invaluable. Many thanks also to the students and researchers at Ohio State University who participated in our discourse elicitation task and the stimulus recordings. We are grateful to the linguistics team at Ohio State University who helped with some native speaker inputs along the way. Thank you to Shari Speer and her team at the Psycholinguistics Lab (Kiwako Ito and Kathryn Kimberley in particular), where some preliminary results were presented, and also to Mary Beckman and Ajou Chen for making valuable comments. Thanks also go to Joan Borràs-Comes for helping with the statistics.
This research has been funded by a research grant awarded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (PGC2018-097007-B-I00 ‘Multimodal Language Learning (MLL): Prosodic and Gestural Integration in Pragmatic and Phonological Development’) and by a grant awarded by the Generalitat de Catalunya (2017 SGR _ 971) to the Prosodic Studies Group. The first author also acknowledges a travel grant received by the Department of Translation and Language Sciences at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.
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Imagine yourself being a pre-school teacher, in charge of a small group of three- to four-year-old children. The task consists of 10 situations. Imagine yourself being in each of these situations and then respond to them as spontaneously as possible.
Non-polite stance condition
Polite stance condition
Scene 1a. The child is playing with your smartphone and dropped it. You have already asked him/her to stop playing with your smartphone before. You’re getting impatient. Tell the child to give you the smartphone.
Scene 1b. You have both your hands full of plates on your way to the kitchen and you have just dropped a fork. Ask the child nicely to give you the fork.
Scene 2a. The child is scribbling in a book from the class. You have told the child many times before to not scribble in the picture books. You’re getting annoyed and tell the child to give you the book.
Scene 2b. The child is reading a picture book with a pen close by. You need to write something down.
Ask the child nicely to give you the pen.
Scene 4a. The child is very excited and plays continuously with a noisy toy but you want him/her to be quiet. You’re quite annoyed.
Tell the child to give you the toy.
Scene 4b. You bring some toys to the table. A huge frog is still in front of the child. In order to have room for the new toys you ask the child nicely to give you the frog.
Scene 5a. The child is playing with a ball in the kitchen and you have told the child several times before not to play with the ball there. You get annoyed and tell the child to give you the ball.
Scene 5b. You’re sitting at a table next to the children. You can’t reach the bread and you ask the child who sits closest to the bread nicely to give you the bread.
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