Politeness Theory and Second Language Learning

Xiaoke Sun # Post 2

Politeness, which is regarded as a sign of good education, is highly praised in our society. Having acquired proficiency in different languages, I found out each language has its particular way to show politeness, explicitly or implicitly. For example, Mandarin has two different pronouns (“ni” and “nin”) of the second personal singular. By altering between them, speakers are able to show different levels of respect and politeness. The similar linguistic trait can be found in French. People use “vous” as a respectful form to address the second person singular, (as “nin 您” in Mandarin) while using “tu” (as “ni 你” in Mandarin) in the casual, or peer interaction. In English, however, only “you” is employed to address the person (or people) that the speaker is associating with, regardless of their age or social status. It is not to say that English lacks preciseness or politeness. Instead, it highlights the variety and complexity of linguistical features among different languages. The way to show politeness in English is unique in its use of conditional tense or in its increase of the length of sentence. This feature can be well explained by Alison’s example of using “Could I bother you to lend me your pen?” instead of shortly saying “Pen”.

Based on my experience of English learning, I noticed that learners, especially at the beginning level, focus on the accuracy of message delivery. More specifically, ESL learners prefer using a short, and direct sentence to make sure the meaning of a message can be conveyed to the listener, comprehensively and correctly, without producing any ambiguity. I noticed that NNS in public places use “I want…” when they order food instead of “Can I have….”. Grammatically, both of the expressions are correct, however, the latter one displays the client’s better social etiquette because of the form of interrogation.

In addition, at school, we also encounter the scenario of talking with important individuals, such as professors. When people intend to explain an ambiguous sentence, they prefer to say “sorry, I’m not making myself clear” rather than “You didn’t understand me”. This example of avoiding the use of “finger pointing” sentences including the word “you”, shows that the statement could be seen as more polite and appropriate. NS certainly have a better control of their language use. NNS, nevertheless, often experience difficulties in conversations requiring a higher level of formality and politeness. Since this issue has not been fully addressed in ESL classrooms, learners take longer to develop the awareness of politeness through their personal practices.

In reality, NS usually show a reasonable tolerance to the inappropriate expressions from NNS. Theoretically, however, the Politeness Theory (Brown & Levinson, 1987) points out the subtle differences of language use might render huge distinction. According to Brown and Levinson (1987), politeness is the expression of the speaker’s intention to mitigate face threats carried by certain face threatening acts towards the listeners. This definition connotes the ultimate goal of exercising interpersonal skills, which aims to ensure everyone feels affirmed in a social interaction. Applying this theory to the aforementioned examples, the waiters in the restaurant might generate a negative feeling or receive disrespect by the client’s the use of an imperative form of “I want sth.”. At the same time, the client’s expression could also be seen as a Face-threatening act, which inherently damages the face of the client by acting in opposition to the wants and desires of waiters. Therefore, accidentally, the client is very likely to be seen as impolite.

While examining the Politeness Theory, I found it is amazingly helpful in understanding interpersonal communication skills. Subsequently, two questions came to my mind :

-Firstly, in the scenario of ordering food in a restaurant, what if the client does not notice the difference between “can I have ” and “I want”? That means his speech act is unconsciously threatening his face without any chance of being self-noticed. In another case, if the inappropriate language use happens in your class, how do you address it as a language teacher? Do you have any skills to help students to notice and correct their inappropriate use of language without feeling hurt?

-Secondly, how do you think the Politeness Theory applies in other languages? Do you think there are any languages where it may not apply? Therefore, could there be any politeness-neutral languages?



Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [First published 1978 as part of Ester N. Goody (ed.): Questions and Politeness.]

4 thoughts on “Politeness Theory and Second Language Learning”

  1. Hi Xiaoke,
    Politeness is a fascinating topic. You asked if there could be such thing as a politeness-neutral language. I don’t think so because human interaction is always about negotiating status and position and this involves politeness (face-saving/threatening acts). However, HOW politeness is encoded in a language is different (as you’ve shared) and this presents some nuanced challenges for learners and also for teachers (this was your first question – how do we draw attention to this without making them feel bad?). There are various approaches, but the first should be fostering a learning environment in which learners feel safe taking risks. Role plays can be a good way to draw attention to politeness norms. I’m curious to hear what others think.

    Finally, this article might interest you:



  2. Hey Xiaoke! Interesting Post! I completely agree with Alison about role playing as an effective means to promote awareness of politeness. One thing I’ve done is role plays that show ‘levels of politeness’. For example, a hotel complaint situation that begins politely: “Excuse me, if it isn’t too much trouble, could you please send up some clean towels”, leading to less polite: “Would you please send up clean towels”, and more direct when the towels still don’t come: “Bring me clean towels! Please!”, and finally, a warning: “If you don’t bring me clean towels, I’ll look for a new hotel!”. This progression shows how we speak more directly as frustration increases. Hope that helps!!


  3. Hey Xiaoke,
    I found this post intriguing. I’m a native english speaker and I’ve always been concerned with sounding polite, I don’t want anyone to feel as though I have insulted them. For example, I would spend a very long time drafting and rereading emails that I needed to send to professors, to insure that I came across in a polite and correct manner. In order to help students navigate these tricky rules, I would address it in my lesson planning. For example, have a unit on politeness and what being polite consists of everyday. If a student were to use politeness incorrectly it would really come down to the discretion of the teacher as to address it or not. If I knew it were a student who wouldn’t get offended, I would address it. However, if it were a student who was shy and timid about speaking in english in the first place I would address him or her afterwards and explain.
    Hope that’s useful,


  4. Yerim Lee (comment #3)

    Thank you for sharing this, Xiaoke.
    As in French, Korean also has pretty complicated rules for politeness. To express politeness in Korean, we conjugate verbs while we use totally different words and expressions. For example, if someone wants to ask “Did you have a meal?”, in a casual conversation, we say “밥(meal) 먹었니(ate)? (bab mugeot-ni?)”. However, in a formal situation or when someone asks to older people, we should say “식사(meal) 하셨어요(had)? (siksa hasyeot-seoyo)”. As you can see, “밥 먹었니?” and “식사 하셨어요?” do not share any common words and have different expressions. Thus, obviously, these politeness rules in Korean are difficult for learners to fully understand and use.

    As you mentioned, I think this politeness is expressed differently in each language. Also, as Alison mentioned above, I also believe that the formats of politeness have been created within human interactions. Thus, I don’t assume that there is any language which has no politeness at all.
    It means that we, as language teachers, have to consider the aspect of politeness in languages more and try to find and improve the ways we can teach politeness of languages to learners effectively.


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