The Wonder In Language

Our guest author today is Daniela O'Neill, Professor of Psychology at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. You can learn more about her work here.

In a wonderful bookNarratives from the Crib, a little two-year-old girl’s talk to herself in her crib before going to sleep was recorded by her parents and carefully transcribed by child language researchers, who then explored and wrote about the many interesting things captured in this self-talk.

Narratives in the Crib is a collection of the work of these scholars. Emily was the name of the little girl, and her talk was a fascinating window into her mind – into what she was wondering about, thinking about and trying to understand. Many years ago, when I was “listening” to Emily talk as I read the book, a little word caught my attention, because she used it a lot – it was the little word maybe.

Why did it catch my attention? Because, at the time, I’d been thinking about three- and four-year-olds’ understanding of themselves in time – that is, their understanding that they have a “past-self," a “present-self” and a “future-self," and that these are all connected in time. When children reach three- to four years old, there appears to be a pretty big shift in understanding of this concept, one which coincides, for example, with children beginning to understand and use words like “yesterday” and “tomorrow."

These are words that are pretty rare to hear from a three-year-old but much more common in four-year-olds. That’s because it takes time for this sense of self in time to emerge. It’s an amazing concept, and one that, so far at least, does not seem to be accessible to other species. And, as far as we know, according to a friend of mine, Daniel Povinelli, who studies chimpanzee thinking, thinking about the future in the sophisticated sense of “preparing for one or more possible outcomes” has not ever been demonstrated convincingly in any other animal. Thinking about the future is a uniquely human ability.

But what does all this have to do with Emily’s use of maybe?

Well, how Emily used maybe was really intriguing and suggested, perhaps, that she was beginning to contemplate things that might happen in the future. For instance, Emily speculates, "maybe when my go to Tanta’s might get some soap to put on my hands." And, referring to an upcoming trip to the ocean, she wonders how far away it is: "I think it’s….couple blocks…away. Maybe it’s down, downtown."

Emily was, however, only two years old. Was this a first glimpse of an understanding that would later grow into a full-bloom understanding of the future? Is this perhaps how children begin thinking about the future? What is unique about thinking about the future, and what makes it different from the past or the present, is that it is inherently uncertain. We don’t -- and can’t -- know exactly how it’s going to play out. In English, we don’t have a "future tense" per se, as do some other languages, such French. So, in English, we have to build a future tense using smaller little words and phrases such "going to" or its more common version, "gonna."

Another way to do this, I thought, listening to Emily, is to use "maybe." Putting maybe in front of something, such as "maybe my daddy give me a big piano," marks it as something uncertain. And uncertainty is exactly what the future is all about. Emily was wondering about how something might turn out, and her way of expressing this was to use maybe.

Would other two-year-old children do the same? That’s the developmental psychologist in me talking, but it’s what led my student Cristina Atance and me to embark on a whole study of this little word "maybe" (and others that mark uncertainty, such as might and probably), and how they were used by ten other young toddlers for whom researchers had recorded early conversations.

The answer to our question was "yes." What Emily was doing was similar to what other toddlers were doing.

By two and a half years of age, children are beginning to talk about events in the future using key words such as maybe. And two-year-olds first did so when wondering about things that other people, or that they themselves, might do, such as "maybe you finish that one?" or "maybe I’ll go away." They also used the words when referring to things that might happen, such as "maybe fall?" and "it might pop again." As children come to three- and four years of age, their curiosity about things that might happen is plainly evident: "we might see him again;" "maybe he’ll want it later;" "I might catch the hiccups;" and "we might turn into werewolves."

My story of maybe could end here, but it doesn’t. Cristina and I went on to look much more in depth at children’s understanding of the future, their ability to think about themselves in a future situation, and their capacity to do things such as planning for a future situation.

Interestingly, over the course of carrying out these studies over the years, our conversations with many parents revealed that most of them talked a lot with their children about what was going to happen on a given day, or about something coming up soon. But there were also some parents that reported not doing this much at all. These parents would usually explain that since their toddler or preschool-aged child didn’t really have a say in things that they were going to do, they didn’t really see a need to talk about it.

Over the years, I have not been able to help wonder what might be the impact on a child of hearing much less of this kind of talk? Thinking about the future, and talking about it, is talking and thinking about possibilities, hypotheses, imagination, uncertainties, suppositions, if-then statements, predictions, projections, probabilities, plans, musings and wonderings. And all these kinds of talk are integral to more sophisticated endeavours to come for children, especially once they arrive at school – e.g., scientific and hypothetical thinking, mathematical thinking, creative and divergent thinking, and the recognition and contemplation of multiple different and possible states of affairs and points of view. As one four-year-old in our original study asked, "Mommy, what might happen if doctors are sick?"

Today, we are hearing more and more about the importance for children of hearing words. The 30 Million WordsTM initiative, based on the pioneering study and findings of Hart and Risley, examines the language heard by children in families with varying socioeconomic statuses. The initiative focuses on the great variation in the number of words children hear by age four. However, as others, such as Susan Neuman, Esther Quintero, and indeed Hart and Risley as well, have emphasized, it is not just the number of words that matter. The kind of words and the concepts they capture are important as well. Getting children onto a level playing field by the time they enter school will rest not only on increasing the number of words they know but also on the many varied concepts and uses of language to which a child in a language rich home will be exposed.

If, however, this sounds like a call to teach children more, this essay will have missed it’s mark entirely. What children talk about is a window into their minds, their perspectives and their sense of wonder. Their sense of wonder is not quite the same as our adult sense of wonder. It is a creative, free-ranging, wide sense of wonder about the world and the people and things in it. It is a wonder about routines and special events, about impressions and reactions, and about the mysterious workings of their own and others’ minds. It is a font for limitless possible conversations, out of which so much learning has the potential to emerge naturally and spontaneously. Slowing down and taking the time to listen for children’s questions, and to hear what they are wondering about, is one way to begin rich conversations, in which you wonder together.

For parents and children, it shouldn’t be a race to 30 million words, but rather a walk together, with forks in the road to consider, hilltops to climb to see what the view looks like, and little winding paths to follow and explore and wonder where they will lead.

- Daniela O’Neill