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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: May 2018

13 - Doing things with language

from Part III - Using language


As children become more skilled at using language, they use it in more ways for greater effect. They make use of a growing array of linguistic options to mark social roles for both speaker and addressee: features that identify speech as appropriate for a child compared to an adult, a girl compared to a boy, a teacher compared to a student, a doctor compared to a patient. As children grow up, they become members of other communities and learn how to mark their membership linguistically in each: family, classroom, band, computer lab, tennis team, adventure camp. They also learn how to do more with language: how to be polite, how to be persuasive, how to negotiate to resolve conflicts; how to talk inside the classroom as well as outside; how to weigh sources of information; how to distinguish actual events from play. And they learn how to tell stories, becoming increasingly adept at presenting protagonists and their motives, at tracking events that move the action along, and at placing the protagonists in the appropriate setting.

To manage all this, children first of all extend their repertoires of speech acts. Speech acts have often been represented as a matter for the speaker alone (e.g., Searle 1975), but in conversation, speaker and addressee often collaborate in the production of a single act, so traditional descriptions mislead in leaving out addressees (see H. Clark 1996). And in mastering the many words and constructions for each speech act, children come to realize that they can use specific forms for many functions depending on the speaker, addressee, setting, and preceding conversation. Equally, they can convey specific functions with many forms. As children add to their repertoires of both forms and functions, they become more effective in how they use language (Budwig 1995; Slobin 2001b). This chapter focusses first on language skills that mark social roles and then on the genres of language use that speakers exploit to achieve their communicative goals.

Social roles

Speakers use language to present themselves. They use language to identify the role they take in one context versus another – a father, a teacher, a tour guide, a pianist. They use language to signal intimacy and distance. And they use language to mark gender, status, and power.