Theoretical Framework Language Development As Communicative Development

Language acquisition constitutes a process in which communication is always central (Ninio & Snow, 1996). Children clearly need to learn a great deal about the formal linguistic system and about conventional modes of expression in order to speak grammatically and correctly. While such learning is impressive, thinking of language acquisition as consisting entirely, or even primarily, of learning about the formal, conventionalized aspects of the language system omits the aspect of language development most crucial to understanding transitions from earlier to more sophisticated stages—the child's motive to communicate and capacity to respond to an ever widening array of communicative challenges.

Children's first words are typically not true lexical items that communicate information, but attempts to connect with their interlocutor. The earliest uses of conventional language can be analyzed as attempts to participate in social interaction through somewhat marginal linguistic forms that constitute turns in games (e.g., peekaboo) or formatted responses to adult utterances (what does the kitty say?) (Ninio, 1993). Parents recruit these semilinguistic forms for use in joint attention episodes (occasions when parents and children achieve shared attention to a real object, a toy, or a pictured object) and treat them as answers to questions about the joint focus of attention (Adult: what's that? Child: meow). Subsequently, of course, children start to learn real, conventional words in these exchanges, and eventually are able to initiate such exchanges themselves by naming objects to establish a joint focus of attention, or by asking what's that?

These early naming exchanges constitute the beginning of what, within the analytic system of communicative intents proposed by Ninio and Wheeler (1984), can be classified as "discussions". Although these earliest "discussions" are limited to the here and now, they soon are expanded to incorporate information that goes beyond what is visible. For example, often when children are still in the one-word stage, mothers name animals pictured in books and then model or request information about what sounds the animals make, where they typically live, or what their babies are called. Even later, joint attentional episodes trigger discussion ofjointly remembered past events; this emergence of talk about objects, attributes, or events not observable in the here and now ("nonpresent talk") constitutes the first occurrence of narrative-like structures in the talk of young children.

While children typically can participate in discussions of information somewhat displaced from the here and now with parental help between the ages of 12—24 months, their ability to become full conversational partners in such exchanges depends on their newly developing capacities in the domain of communication. Beyond talking simply to participate socially, they discover that talk also provides the opportunity to exchange information—to request and to get new information verbally. Though we think of this as the basic function of language, in fact it is one which children are able to display only after some months of using language socially. The information-exchange based discussion is, we argue, a prerequisite to the emergence of proto-narrative discourse.

A further, enormous achievement in young children's communicative systems is represented by their emergent ability to take the listener's perspective. Young children provide information, but they often do so in ways that are poorly adapted to the needs of the listener. With growing cognitive and social sophistication, children become more adept at predicting what information listeners need, responding to listeners' cues, and anticipating and taking the listener's perspective. This capacity to take the listener's perspective becomes crucial to providing satisfactory narratives, which mark explicitly for the listener how one is expected to respond to the information being provided.

Paralleling the development of skills required for exchanging information about the real world of the here and now, as well as objects and events removed in time and space, are children's growing abilities to engage in conversation about fantasy worlds. While children can make moves into the symbolic, nonrepresentational, or fantasy domain by about the time of the first word (e.g., pushing a toy car along the table while saying vroom-vroom), organized fantasy play segments do not typically emerge until after the second birthday. It seems likely that opportunities to participate in fantasy talk interactions, in contexts supported by an adult, will lead to greater skill in the autonomous production of fantasy talk.

Our view, then, is that autonomous narrative skill depends on previous social and cognitive achievements, in particular achievements in the child's ability to engage in true (i.e., information-exchanging) conversation about topics in the here and now, in the real but nonpresent world, and in fantasy worlds. In the study reported here, we investigated whether participation in discussions of the nonpresent and participation in fantasy talk at ages 20 and 32 months are related to children's skill at producing more autonomous narratives at age 5. Specifically, we hypothesized that early experience talking about the nonpresent would allow children to practice skills necessary to later produce personal narratives, and that early experience engaging in fantasy talk with an adult would build the skills necessary for telling autonomous fantasy narratives at age 5.

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