Accessible Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton December 17, 2019

Three-year-olds infer polite stance from intonation and facial cues

Iris Hübscher ORCID logo, Laura Wagner and Pilar Prieto


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.


Aguert, Marc, Virginie Laval, Agnès Lacroix, Sandrine Gil & Ludovic Le Bigot. 2013. Inferring emotions from speech prosody: Not so easy at age five. PLoS ONE 8(12), 1-9. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083657 Search in Google Scholar

Andersen, Peter A. & Laura K. Guerrero. 1998. Handbook of communication and emotion: Research, theory, applications, and contexts. San Diego: Academic Press. Search in Google Scholar

Armstrong, Meghan. E., Núria Esteve-Gibert & Pilar Prieto. 2014. The acquisition of multimodal cues to disbelief. Paper presented at Speech Prosody 2014, May 20-23, Dublin, Ireland Search in Google Scholar

Armstrong, Meghan. E. & Iris Hübscher. 2018. Children’s development of internal state prosody. In Pilar Prieto & Núria Esteve-Gibert (Eds.), Prosodic Development in First Language Acquisition 272-293. John Benjamins. Search in Google Scholar

Bänziger, Tanja, Marcello Mortillaro & Klaus Scherer. 2010. Introducing the Geneva Multimodal Emotion Portrayal (GEMEP) corpus. In Klaus Scherer, Tanja Bänziger, & Etienne Roesch (Eds.), Blueprint for affective computing: A sourcebook 271-294. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Search in Google Scholar

Bates, Elizabeth. 1976. Language and context: the acquisition of pragmatics. New York: Academic Press. Search in Google Scholar

Beckman, Mary E., Julia Hirschberg & Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel. 2005. The original ToBi system and the evolution of the ToBi framework. In Sun Ah Jun (Ed.), Prosodic Typology: The Phonology of Intonation and Phrasing 9-54. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Search in Google Scholar

Brown, Lucien & Prieto Prieto. 2017. (Im)politeness: prosody and gesture. In Jonathan Culpeper, Michael Haugh, & Dániel Kádár (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Linguistic (Im)politeness London: Palgrave Macmillan. Search in Google Scholar

Brown, Penelope & Steven Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language use. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Search in Google Scholar

Butcher, Cynthia & Susan Goldin-Meadow. 2000. Gesture and the transition from one- to two-word speech: When hand and mouth come together. In Dacid McNeill (Ed.), Language and Gesture 235-257. New York: Cambridge University Press. Search in Google Scholar

Camras, Linda A., Toni M. Pristo & Mari J. Brown. 1985. Directive choice by children and adults: Affect, situation and linguistic politeness. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 31. 19-31. Search in Google Scholar

Culpeper, Jonathan. 2011. “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it!”: prosody and impoliteness. In Linguistic Politeness Research Group (Ed.), Discursive approaches to politeness Vol. 8, 57-83. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Search in Google Scholar

Culpeper, Jonathan, Derek Bousfield & Anne Wichmann. 2003. Impoliteness revisited: With special reference to dynamic and prosodic aspects. Journal of Pragmatics 35(10-11). 1545-1579. doi:10.1016/S0378-2166(02)00118-2 Search in Google Scholar

Denham, Susanne A., Marcia Mckinley, Elizabeth. A. Couchoud & Robert Holt. 1990. Emotional and behavioral predictors of peer status in young preschoolers. Child Development 61. 1145-1152. Search in Google Scholar

Esteve-Gibert, Núria & Pilar Prieto. 2018. Early development of prosody-meaning interface. In Núria Esteve-Gibert & Pilar Prieto (Eds.) The Development of Prosody in First Language Acquisition. 228-246. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Search in Google Scholar

Farroni, Teresa, Mark H. Johnson, Enrica Menon, Luisa Zulian, Dino Faraguna & Gergely Csibra. 2005. Newborns’ preference for face-relevant stimuli: Effects of contrast polarity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102(47). 17245-17250. doi:10.1073/pnas.0502205102 Search in Google Scholar

Fernald, Anne. 1993. Approval and disapproval: infant responsiveness to vocal affect in familiar and unfamiliar languages. Child Development 64(3). 657-674. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1993.tb02934.x Search in Google Scholar

Friend, Margaret. 2001. The transition from affective to linguistic meaning. First Language 21(63), 219-243. doi:10.1177/014272370102106302 Search in Google Scholar

Friend, Margaret & Judith B. Bryant. 2000. A developmental lexical bias in the interpretation of discrepant messages. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 46(2). 342-369. Retrieved from Search in Google Scholar

Gagnon, Mathieu, Pierre Gosselin, Isabelle Hudon-Ven Der Buhs, Karine Larocque & Karine Milliard. 2010. Children’s recognition and discrimination of fear and disgust facial expressions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 34(1). 27-42. doi:10.1007/s10919-009-0076-z Search in Google Scholar

Gagnon, Mathieu, Pierre Gosselin & Reem Maassarani. 2014. Children’s ability to recognize emotions from partial and complete facial expressions. Journal of Genetic Psychology 175(5). 416-430. doi:10.1080/00221325.2014.941322 Search in Google Scholar

Gao, Xiaoqing & Daphne Maurer. 2010. A happy story: Developmental changes in children’s sensitivity to facial expressions of varying intensities. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 107(2). 67-86. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2010.05.003 Search in Google Scholar

Grossmann, Tobias, Regine Oberecker, Stefan Paul Koch & Angela D. Friederici. 2010. The Developmental Origins of Voice Processing in the Human Brain. Neuron 65(6). 852-858. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2010.03.001 Search in Google Scholar

Harrigan, Jinni A. 1984. The effects of task order on children’s identification of facial expressions. Motivation and Emotion 8(2). 157-169. doi:10.1007/BF00993071 Search in Google Scholar

Herba, Catherine. M., Sabine Landau, Tamara Russell, Christine Ecker & Mary L. Phillips. 2006. The development of emotion-processing in children: Effects of age, emotion, and intensity. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines 47(11). 1098-1106. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2006.01652.x Search in Google Scholar

Hoehle, Barabara. 2009. Bootstrapping mechanisms in first language acquisition. Linguistics 47(2), 359-382. doi:10.1515/LING.2009.013 Search in Google Scholar

Hoicka, Elena & S. H. Wang. 2011. Fifteen-month-old infants match vocal cues to intentional actions. Journal of Cognition and Development 12(3). 299-314. doi:10.1080/15248372.2010.542215 Search in Google Scholar

Hübscher, Iris, Núria Esteve-Gibert, Alfonso Igualada & Prieo Prieto. 2017. Intonation and gesture as bootstrapping devices in speaker uncertainty. First Language 37(1). 24-41. Retrieved from %2f0142723716673953&partnerID=40&md5=9c2d4b2ff417d2015caff0e78961e382 Search in Google Scholar

Izard, Carrol E. 1971. The face of emotion. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. Search in Google Scholar

Jhang, Yuna & D. Kimbrough Oller 2017. Emergence of functional flexibility in infant vocalizations of the first 3 months. Frontiers in Psychology 8(MAR). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00300 Search in Google Scholar

Jun, Sun-Ah. 2010. Prosodic typology: The phonology of intonation and phrasing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Search in Google Scholar

Kahana-Kalman, Ronit & Arlene. S. Walker-Andrews. 2001. The role of person familiarity in young infants’ perception of emotional expressions. Child Development 72(2). 352-369. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00283 Search in Google Scholar

Kayyal, Mary. H. & Sherri. C. Widen. 2015. What made sahar scared?: Imaginary and realistic causes in Palestinian and American children’s concept for fear. Journal of Cognition and Culture 15(1-2). 32-44. doi:10.1163/15685373-12342139 Search in Google Scholar

Kelly, Spencer. D. 2001. Broadening the units of analysis in communication: Speech and nonverbal behaviours in pragmatic comprehension. Journal of Child Language 28(2). 325-349. Retrieved from %2fS0305000901004664&partnerID=40&md5=f902c2e2adcc804f4acc7638af49ca7a Search in Google Scholar

Khu, Melanie, Craig Chambers & Susan. A. Graham. 2017. When you’re happy and I know it: Four year-olds’ emotional perspective-taking during on-line language comprehension. Child Devevelopment 89. 2264-2281. Search in Google Scholar

Langlotz, Andreas. & Miriam. A. Locher. 2013. The role of emotions in relational work. Journal of Pragmatics 58. 87-107. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2013.05.014 Search in Google Scholar

Langlotz, Andreas. & Miriam. A. Locher. 2017. (Im)politeness and emotion. In Palgrave Handbook of Linguistic (Im)politenes 287-322. London. Search in Google Scholar

Lawrence, L. L. & Anne Fernald. (1993). When prosody and semantics conflict: infantssensitivity to discrepancies between tone of voice and verbal content Poster session presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development New Orleans, LA. Search in Google Scholar

Locher, Miriam. A. & Regula Koenig. 2014. ‘All I could do was hand her another tissue’ - Handling emotions as challenge in reflective writing texts by medical students. SPELL: Swiss papers in English language and literature 30. 215-236. Search in Google Scholar

Locher, Miriam. A. & Andreas Langlotz. 2008. Relational work: at the intersection of cognition, interaction and emotion. Swiss Association of Applied Linguistics 88. 165-191. Search in Google Scholar

Markham, Roslyn & Kym Adams. 1992. The effect of type of task on children’s identification of facial expressions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 16(1). 21-39. doi:10.1007/BF00986877 Search in Google Scholar

Mastropieri, Diane. & Gerald Turkewitz. 1999. Prenatal experience and neonatal responsiveness to vocal expressions of emotion. Developmental Psychobiology 35(3). 204-214. Search in Google Scholar

Mcclure, Erin B. 2000. A meta-analytic review of sex differences in facial expression processing and their development in infants, children, and adolescents. Psychological Bulletin 126(3). 424-453. Retrieved from Search in Google Scholar

Mccluskey, Ken. W. & Daniel. C. Albas. 1981. Perception of the emotional content of speech by Canadian and Mexican children, adolescents, and adults. International Journal of Psychology 16. 119−132. Search in Google Scholar

Morton, J. Bruce & Sandra E. Trehub. 2001. Children’s understanding of emotion in speech. Child Development 72(3). 834-843. Retrieved from Search in Google Scholar

Morton, J. Bruce, Sandra E. Trehub & Philip David Zelazo. 2003. Sources of inflexibility in 6-year-olds’ understanding of emotion in speech. Child Development 74(6). 1857-1868. doi:10.1046/j.1467-8624.2003.00642.x Search in Google Scholar

Mumme, Donna L., Anne Fernald & C. Herrera. 1996. Infants’ responses to facial and vocal emotional signals in a social referencing paradigm. Child Development 67(6). 3219-3237. Retrieved from Search in Google Scholar

Nelson, Nicole. L. & James A. Russell. 2011. Preschoolers’ use of dynamic facial, bodily, and vocal cues to emotion. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 110(1). 52-61. Retrieved from %2fj.jecp.2011.03.014&partnerID=40&md5=8a34211a0f607bdd0478c3291ac42bc2 Search in Google Scholar

Nelson, Nicole. L. & James. a. Russell. 2012. Children’s understanding of nonverbal expressions of pride. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 111(3). 379-385. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2011.09.004 Search in Google Scholar

Nelson, Nicole. L. & James. a. Russell. 2015. Children distinguish between positive pride and hubris. Developmental Psychology 51(11). 1609-1614. doi:10.1037/dev0000048 Search in Google Scholar

Nowichi, Stephan. & Marshall P. Duke. 1994. Individual differences in the nonverbal communication of affect: The diagnostic analysis of nonverbal accuracy scale. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 18. 9−35. Search in Google Scholar

Oller, D. Kimbrough, Eugene. H. Buder, Heather. L. Ramsdell, Anne. S. Warlaumont, Lesya Chorna & Roger Bakeman. 2013. Functional flexibility of infant vocalization and the emergence of language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110(16). 6318-6323. doi:10.1073/pnas.1300337110 Search in Google Scholar

Papaeliou, Christina, George Minadakis & D. Cavouras. 2002. Acoustic patterns of infant vocalizations expressing emotions and communicative functions. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 45(2). 311-317. Search in Google Scholar

Pierrehumbert, Janet. 1980. The phonology and phonetics of English intonation. PhD thesis, MIT: Indiana University Linguistics Club. Search in Google Scholar

Quam, Carolyn & Daniel Swingley. 2012. Development in children’s interpretation of pitch cues to emotions. Child Development 83(1). 236-250. Retrieved from Search in Google Scholar

Roberson, Debi, Ljubica Damjanovic & Mariko Kikutani. 2010. Show and tell: The role of language in categorizing facial expression of emotion. Emotion Review 2(3). 255-260. doi:10.1177/1754073910361979 Search in Google Scholar

Scheiner, Elisabeth, Kurt Hammerschmidt, Uwe Jürgens & Petra Zwirner. 2003. Unterschiede im vokalen Ausdruck von Emotionen bei hörenden und hochgradig schwerhörigen Säuglingen. In M. Kruse & E. Gross (Eds.) Aktuelle phoniatrisch-pädaudiologische Aspekte 2003/2004. Vol. 11, 282-286. Heidelberg: Median Verlag Search in Google Scholar

Shochi, Takaaki, Donna Erickson, Kaoru Sekiyama, Albert Rilliard & Véronique Aubergé. 2009. Japanese children’s acquisition of prosodic politeness expressions. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the International Speech Communication Association, INTERSPEECH. Search in Google Scholar

Spencer-Oatey, Helen. 2011. Conceptualising ‘the relational’ in pragmatics: Insights from metapragmatic emotion and (im)politeness comments. Journal of Pragmatics 43(14). 3565-3578. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2011.08.009 Search in Google Scholar

Székely, Eszter, Henning Tiemeier, Lidia. R. Arends, Vincent W. V. Jaddoe, Albert Hofman, Frank. C. Verhulst & Catherine. M. Herba. 2011. Recognition of facial expressions of emotions by 3-year-olds. Emotion 11(2). 425-435. doi:10.1037/a0022587 Search in Google Scholar

Szumilas, Magdalena. 2010. Explaining Odds Ratios. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 19. 227. Search in Google Scholar

Tracy, Jessica L., Richard. W. Robins & Kristin. H. Lagattuta. 2005. Can children recognize pride? Emotion 5(3). 251-257. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.5.3.251 Search in Google Scholar

Vaillant-Molina, Mariana, Lorraine. E. Bahrick & Ross Flom. 2013. Young infants match facial and vocal emotional expressions of other infants. Infancy 18(SUPPL.1). doi:10.1111/infa.12017 Search in Google Scholar

Vaish, Amrisha & Tricia Striano. 2004. Is visual reference necessary? Contributions of facial versus vocal cues in 12-month-olds’ social referencing behavior. Developmental Science 7(3). 261-269. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2004.00344.x Search in Google Scholar

Wagner, Laura, Shari. R. Speer, Leslie. C. Moore, Elizabeth. A. Mccullough, Kiwako Ito, Cynthia G. Clopper & Kathryn Campbell-Kibler. 2015. Linguistics in a science museum: integrating research, teaching, and outreach at the language sciences research lab. Linguistics and Language Compass 9(10). 420-431. doi:10.1111/lnc3.12164 Search in Google Scholar

Walker-Andrews, Arlene. S. & Wendy Grolnick. 1983. Discrimination of vocal expressions by young infants. Infant Behavior and Development 6(4). 491-498. doi:10.1016/S0163-6383(83)90331-4 Search in Google Scholar

Waxer, Matthew & J. Bruce Morton. 2011. Children’s judgments of emotion from conflicting cues in speech: Why 6-year-olds are so inflexible. Child Development 82(5). 1648-1660. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01624.x Search in Google Scholar

Widen, Sherri C. 2013. Children’s interpretation of facial expressions: The long path from valence-based to specific discrete categories. Emotion Review 5(1). 72-77. doi:10.1177/1754073912451492 Search in Google Scholar

Widen, Sherri C. & James A. Russell. 2003. A closer look at preschoolers’ freely produced labels for facial expressions. Developmental Psychology 39(1). 114-128. doi:10.1037//0012-1649.39.1.114 Search in Google Scholar

Widen, Sherri C. & James A. Russell. 2008. Children acquire emotion categories gradually. Cognitive Development 23(2). 291-312. doi:10.1016/j.cogdev.2008.01.002 Search in Google Scholar

Wilutzky, Wendy. 2015. Emotions as pragmatic and epistemic actions. Frontiers in Psychology 6(OCT). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01593 Search in Google Scholar

Zhang, Dandan, Yunzh Liu, Xinlin Hou, Guoyu Sun, Yawei Cheng & Yuejia Luo. 2014. Discrimination of fearful and angry emotional voices in sleeping human neonates: A study of the mismatch brain responses. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 8(DEC). 1-10. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00422 Search in Google Scholar


DCT Instructions:

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.

Published Online: 2019-12-17
Published in Print: 2020-02-25

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston