Monday 14 May 2012

How four-year-olds use language to make friends

How do children initiate friendships?

Research studies have shown that friendships are important to children and that they offer them emotional support. Some studies have shown that children who have good quality friendships have higher self-esteem, better peer interactions generally and do better at school. But how do children as young as four years old know how to initiate and maintain friendships? What linguistic strategies do they use? Amanda Bateman has been looking at the way children use pro-terms ‘we’ and ‘us’ in the co-construction of new friendship networks when they first start primary school.

Bateman’s study took place in Wales, where children start school at four years old. The research was conducted approximately three weeks after the children’s first day at primary school. Thirteen four-year-old children (6 girls, 7 boys) were videoed and recorded during their morning playtime, one child per morning over a three-week period. Interactions in which the children used the words ‘we’ and ‘us’ in their social alignments with each other were transcribed and analysed.

In one example, Bateman demonstrates how a four-year-old girl initiates a friendship with a boy firstly using the collective pro-term ‘we’ ‘why don’t we just..’ and then follows with the use of a possessive pronoun to invite him to her party ‘will you come to my party’ successfully achieving her desired affiliation with him as he accepts her offer.

Bateman also shows how once friendships have been initiated, they are protected and maintained, as in the following example:

Emma:                       kerry do you want to play mums and dads
Kerry:                        no we’re playing families
Kathy:                        no

In this interaction Emma approaches the other two children and asks Kerry if she wants to play mums and dads. Kerry rejects the offer and uses the collective pro-term ‘we’ to show that she is already affiliated to Kathy. This establishes Kerry and Kathy as an exclusive friendship, from which Emma is excluded. Kathy’s use of emphatic ‘no’ also serves to protect their exclusive friendship.

The study shows that the pro-terms ‘we’ and ‘us’ help children to verbally affiliate themselves with another child in order to establish a friendship. Equally, though, the same pro-terms can also be used to exclude other children who are not accepted as being part of the friendship group. Interestingly, the study aligns with findings from studies conducted years and countries apart, leaving Bateman to suggest that children worldwide use the same strategies when co-constructing social alignment on an everyday basis. The researcher also concludes by drawing attention to the creativity and social competencies in social organization processes in children as young as four years old.
Bateman, A. (2012). Forging friendships: The use of collective pro-terms by pre-school children. Discourse Studies14 (2): 165-180.

DOI: 10.1177/1461445611433630
This summary was written by Sue Fox

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