From the Mouths of Babes

From the Mouths of Babes: Children’s Use of Elderspeak in An Intergenerational Daycare Facility

Allison Portney



As the population in the United States ages, it becomes increasingly important to understand how a new generation is learning to interact with older adults. This study examines the way that children and staff at an intergenerational daycare facility speak to older Americans. Kristine Williams observed the pervasive phenomenon of “elderspeak,” a linguistic register similar to baby talk used to speak to older adults in many settings, including a long-term care facility (Williams 2011: 4). Elderspeak was found to have extremely negative consequences on older individuals’ health outcomes. I analyzed twenty hours of audio data from naturalistic interactions I observed at my research site. This study found that using 1) age-avoidance terms, 2) a patronizing tone, 3) lack of honorifics, and 4) scolding by staff, older adults, and children linguistically separated older adults into a different and lower social status from staff members and children. This communicative practice impacted the social and linguistic environment of the intergenerational care facility. As elderspeak is socialized, it spreads across generations. The simplified register with a tone and structure of condescension is a reflection of local ideologies about aging.

Keywords: Elderspeak, intergenerational care, communication and aging

Download Full Text – Portney 2013


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