One of my favourite things about preschoolers’ language development is the emergence of decontextualized language. This is when kids start to talk about ideas outside of the present moment, or ideas beyond the “here-and-now.” This could mean talking about past events, such as “kitty scratch me” or future events, like “We go to the park?” Children also use decontextualized language during their pretend play, like when my youngest used to yell “whoa, my train wanna be a plane” right before throwing his trains around. In this case, the comment and the action are contextually related, but he invented the comment, unrelated to what anyone else was doing or saying.
Children typically start talking about simple ideas beyond “here-and-now” sometime well before they are three years old.
Because early parenthood is basically a blur of sleepless nights and dirty diapers (and soooo much more, you might know all about it), I haven’t got a clue when exactly my oldest child started using decontextualized language. But I treasure a photo I snapped one day at his daycare when he was a few months past three years old, an adorable piece of evidence that he was using decontextualized language during show-and-tell. The night before, he tried his best to convince me to let him bring a puzzle to show his little friends. Not just any puzzle, but one that was way too hard for a 3-year-old and had way too many small pieces. He loved it only because the pieces came inside a cardboard ice cream truck. Maybe I should have just let him take it (or just the box?? Again, blur of early motherhood), but being the meanie that I am, I forced him to bring something else, and we settled on a music box that Aunt Annie had given him for Christmas. I still remember talking about the music box that morning, to help him have some ideas for show-and-tell.
Later that day when I picked him up, I melted when I saw his daycare educator’s adorable summary of his little show-and-tell presentation:
The comment about the ice cream truck must have seemed like a total non-sequitur to his educator, but because she was fabulous, she wrote it down anyway, thus giving me a glimpse into his developing decontextualized language.
Prior to this stage, children are mostly just talking about things that they see or want. They label, comment, or question in reaction to the concrete things in their environment, and can actually get their ideas across pretty well using gestures which are not even necessarily paired with words. Pointing excitedly at a dog means “look at the big dog!” and suddenly throwing supper on the floor means “thank you so much for your culinary efforts, but I don’t much care for this particular dish.” Decontextualized language requires a whole next level of skill, in order to make another person understand your idea about whatever it is that is not visible to either one of you at the present moment.
Just how important is decontextualized talk? A 2018 study from Harvard followed children from 2 ½ years of age until their Grade 7 year. It turned out that by Grade 7, children who used more decontextualized language at 2 ½ were more proficient with academic language, or the type of language found in text books that students in middle school and beyond are expected to understand. The Hanen Centre in Toronto has a nice article that interprets this study. Basically, decontextualized language and academic language share many features: both are more abstract, both rely on creating their own context, both use a greater variety of vocabulary and sentences structures, compared to talking/reading about concrete “here-and-now.”
The best way to increase young children’s use of decontextualized talk? Use decontextualized language with them! Talk to them about past and future events, and provide them with explanations about how things work and why. Also, this is great for vocabulary development. An earlier study showed greater increases in vocabulary for children of parents who more frequently provided such explanations.
So now when your kid asks you “but whyyyyy???” for the 800th time today, go ahead and answer for the 800th time, and know that you’re helping set them up for success.