Nonpresent and Fantasy Talk at Ages 20 and 32 Months

Given our view of traditional measures of child language (e.g., MLU) as an incomplete reflection of children's developing communicative skills, we also examined children's expression of communicative intent. Parent-child talk at child ages 20 and 32 months was segmented into communicative acts, and each act was coded using the Inventory of Communicative Acts-Abridged (INCA-A), a shortened and modified version of the system developed by Ninio and Wheeler (1984) for coding the dyadic interaction of mothers and young children (see Ninio, Snow, Pan, & Rollins, 1994, and Snow, Pan, Imbens-Bailey, & Herman, 1996, for fuller discussions of the coding scheme). In this system, communicative intent is identified and coded at two different levels. The first is the level of interpersonally implicitly agreed-upon social interchange constructed across one or more rounds of talk. In the present study, social interchange categories of interest include discussions of nonpresent people and objects; discussions of nonobservable thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes; discussions of

TABLE 10.1 Summary Statistics for the Sample (n = 32)

Mean (SD) Range

Measures of morphosyntax (32 months)

TABLE 10.1 Summary Statistics for the Sample (n = 32)

Mean (SD) Range

Measures of morphosyntax (32 months)











Measure of vocabulary (20 months)






Measures of pragmatics

Nonpresent talk (20 months)





Fantasy talk (32 months)





Pragmatic flexibility (20 months)





Measures of narrative skill (5 years)

Personal narrative (PN )





Fantasy narrative (FAN)





Fantasy: Genre specificity





Fantasy: Character voice





recent events and accomplishments; and discussions of attributes or events related to an object in the here and now ("related-to-present talk"). The second level at which communicative acts were coded is the specific speech act (e.g., whether the utterance serves the purpose of requesting, thanking, or questioning). The combination of these two levels (that is, the number of social interchange-speech act types produced) provides one measure of children's pragmatic sophistication. We refer to this measure as pragmatic flexibility (Snow, Pan, Imbens-Bailey, & Herman, 1996). Summary statistics for these pragmatic measures are also provided in Table 10.1.

The following examples illustrate the types of nonpresent talk observed in parent-child dyads at 20 and 32 months: Margaret and her mother talk about nonpresent people and objects; Elizabeth and her mother talk about an individual's nonobservable thoughts and feelings (in this case, Elizabeth's fondness for ice cream); and Sarah and her mother talk about events or accomplishments that have just occurred but are not ongoing, and thus are no longer observable.

Margaret: age 32 months

Margaret: Where's that lady? (Investigator has left room)

Mother: I don't know where she went.

Elizabeth: age 20 months

Mother: Mmm is that good? (points to picture of ice cream) You like that?

Elizabeth: Mmm. (nods)

Mother: Mmm that's ice cream, huh?

Elizabeth: I do like. (points to picture of ice cream)

Sarah: 32 months

Sarah: I can carry it. (lifts box and carries it over to table)

Sarah: I carried it.

Mother: You did. You put it right up.

Sarah: Yeah.

Children's engagement in nonpresent talk is often triggered by joint attentional episodes in which the conversation moves beyond the object of joint attention to comment on nonobservable attributes of the object, or to compare the observable object to a nonobservable one, as in the following exchange:

Elizabeth: age 20 months

Mother: What's that? (points to picture in book)

Elizabeth: Yeah. (points to same picture)

Mother: Do we have one of those?

(Elizabeth nods)

Mother: A gate, huh?

(Mother and Elizabeth both nod)

Mother: We've got one of those for Sheba and you, huh?

Elizabeth: Yeah.

As these examples illustrate, talk about the nonpresent between adults and very young children tends to be adult-initiated and rather brief. Children generally assume a minimal conversational role, and often rely heavily on nonverbal means to bolster their participation, as Elizabeth did in "talking" about the gate. Even very young children, however, are able to take a more active role when the topic is animal sounds:

Sarah: age 20 months

Mother: Oh, pigs! (referring to picture in book) What do the pigs say?

Sarah: Eek-eek.

Mother: Well, close.

Mother: He says oink-oink. Oink-oink.

Sarah: Oink.

Despite their rather routinized character, these interchanges tend to be interspersed with talk about the here-and-now in ways that require the child to repeatedly shift frames of reference, as in this conversation in which 20-month-old Sarah and her mother discuss a flattened rubber duck:

(Sarah blows on rubber duck, then shows her mother)

Mother: That's right, that's what we do with a beach ball isn't it? We blow it up.

(Sarah fiddles with duck)

Mother: Oh it came out by itself now. (Mother squeezes the duck) Peep-peep-peep-peep-peep.

Sounds a little bit like a chick doesn't it? Peep-peep-peep-peep-peep.

Such shifts from the here-and-now to nonpresent frames of reference may preview shifts in genre (between personal narration and fantasy narration, for example) as well as shifts in narrative role that are demonstrated by 4- and 5-year-olds. In the earlier excerpt from Sarah's jungle story, for example, she shifts from direct narration (The trees fell over) to reported speech (But then something said 'Turn'') to a side explanation (That was the fire drill because...).

Beginning about age 2, children engage in talk about the fantasy world, as well as talk about real but nonpresent objects and talk about nonobservable attributes of referents. While a child's active imagination can fashion fantasy talk around almost any object, some objects, materials, and contexts seem to be particularly inspirational in this regard. For that reason, it is difficult to estimate the frequency with which children engage in fantasy talk, either in private, with peers, or with adults. What is clear is that there are considerable individual differences in the conversational initiative and elaboration undertaken by children in these exchanges. Margaret, whom we saw struggling to produce a fantasy narrative autonomously at age 5, also produces rather sparse fantasy talk at 32 months, even with considerable scaffolding by her mother:

Mother: Who's this [toy person]?

Margaret: Annie.

Mother: That's Annie?

Mother: Who's that? (points to toy)

Mother: That's Annie.

Margaret: That's a mother.

Mother: Mmhm!

Margaret: This is Mommy! (places a toy next to the other toys on the floor)

Mother: Oh.

Mother: What a nice family.

Mother: Now what are they going to do?

Margaret: [unintelligible] play music?

Thirty-two-month-old Sarah, on the other hand, already takes an active role in assigning roles and actions to characters in a similar fantasy context:

Sarah: There's papa (picks up doll).

Mother: Yep, there's a papa.

Sarah: [unintelligible] He can get in [the car (puts doll in car). He can drive.

Mother: Is he going to drive?

Mother: Where's he going to go?

Sarah: Go in hospital.

Mother: The hospital? Why's he going to the hospital?

Sarah: He's hurt.

Mother: He's hurt? Why is he hurt?

Sarah: He needs cast.

Mother: He needs a cast like papa does?

(Sarah nods slightly.)

Sarah: [unintelligible] papa has got cast.

The considerable skill at autonomous fantasy narration demonstrated by Sarah at age 5 may in part reflect her early participation in this type of adult-scaffolded fantasy world discussion. This episode begins with Sarah identifying the main character (papa) and proposing an appropriate action for him. With her mother's help, these basic ingredients are elaborated with information about goals and explanations (going to the hospital for a cast because he's hurt). Finally, Sarah's mother ties the negotiation of fantasy world back to Sarah's real experience, validating real-world experience as appropriate material for inclusion in fantasy narratives.

At ages 20 and 32 months, conversations about the nonpresent and about fantasy worlds are relatively rare events in parent-child discourse, and are not engaged in by all dyads. Although 94% of dyads in this sample engaged in some nonpresent talk at 20 months, most of this talk was what we have referred to as "related-to-present," that is, talk about nonobservable attributes of observable objects, or talk about nonpresent events tied to a present object or event. Related-to-present talk accounts for 5% of all talk at this age, while discussions of nonpresent people, objects, and events not tied to the here and now were quite rare (each accounting for less than 1% of all talk). At 32 months, nonpresent talk, though not more frequent overall, had begun to free itself from ties to the immediate context, with related-to-present talk accounting for only 2% of all talk, and discussions of objects and events not tied to an observable referent accounting for 1%-2%). Provided with toys to stimulate fantasy dialogue and discussion (i.e., puppets and a play house), nearly all the 32-month-old children and their mothers engaged in brief episodes of fantasy talk. However, such talk accounted for an average of less than 2% of all talk at this age, and children rarely produced initiatory moves in these conversations. Over the subsequent two and a half years, children made considerable strides in their ability to discuss nonpresent objects, events, and people, as well as their skills in initiating and participating in fantasy dialogue and discussion, as we shall see below as we examine children's production of two types of narrative genres: personal narratives and fantasy narratives.

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