Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’: Politeness across languages and its implications for language teaching

2017 edition

Kai Voltmer

Politeness is, for the native speaker of a language, not much more difficult to handle than its grammar or phonetics. A language learner, however, is not bestowed with a native speaker’s competence in grammar, phonetics or politeness. While most schools teach the syntactical rules and pronunciation of English, little or no attention is given to pragmatic competence, specifically politeness. The problem lies in the fact that politeness is not as simple as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, but involves knowledge of the use of language in different contexts. It is this neglected part of the language that my research focuses on in order to answer questions, such as: What is politeness and how can we empirically analyze the politeness systems of different languages? In what ways do languages differ in their verbalization of politeness? Why is it necessary to teach politeness explicitly in class? Can politeness be taught? How?

In my study, the politeness systems of English and German are contrasted in search of differences in the verbal realization of politeness. Specifically, German modal particles, such as mal and doch, are analyzed as politeness markers and compared to English with the aim of identifying potential transfer problems when native speakers of German learn English. Preliminary results of German secondary school students seem to indicate that pragmatic transfer from the learners’ mother tongue takes place for the act of requesting. Native speakers of English rated these learners’ production as not sufficiently polite. Therefore, it seems reasonable to consider the introduction of pragmatics into the language-teaching curriculum. Possible ways of teaching politeness will be discussed.