This was part of my disagreement with Halliday. He said that children don't use metaphorical language (and the Soviet children's writer Chukovsky, Vygotsky's nemesis, said the same thing). The reasons they give are slightly different.
Halliday claims that children cannot use grammatical metaphor (e.g. they cannot say that a verb is like a noun; when I pointed out that children do say "I like shopping" he countered that they think of "shopping" as a noun not a verb).
Chukovsky argues that children are simply obsessed with the sensual aspect of things, and so they prefer concrete language,and for this reason he claims that they disdain adjectives. (See Chukovsky, K. "From Two to Five")
I don't see any evidence of these things in my data (and I should confess at this point that I am not a real linguist; just an English teacher, with no particular interest in the phylogenesis of language or even its socio-cultural history but rather a professional stake in elementary English teaching). On the contrary; I see children who are forced to use metaphor all the time, e.g.
S: I am playing the ski.
Eve Clark (and Charles Darwin) also found a lot evidence of metaphor (see E. Clark, The Young Word Maker: A case study of innovation in the child's lexicon, in Wanner and Gleitman eds. Language Acquisition, the state of the art, 1982 CUP). Clark found children often used neologisms like "lawning" for mowing the lawn, and "scaling" for weighing cheese, and that these were rule governed--they tended to use nouns as verbs but not vice versa, and they immediately discarded their coinage as soon as they learned the standard word, rather as foreign language learners do.
Child humor is another source of evidence that children are perfectly competent in metaphor (and by extension what you call "abstract though processing". Consider these rather unfunny jokes, which children sometimes find hilarious:
PHONOLOGICAL METAPHOR: "If you put three ducks in a box, what do you get? A box of quackers.
LEXICAL METAPHOR: How do we know there was fruit on the ark? The animals came in pairs.
SYNTACTIC METAPHOR: Where would you go to see a man-eating fish? A restaurant.
PRAGMATIC METAPHOR: Will you join me in a bowl of soup? Is there room for both of us?
(Examples from Hirsh-Pasek, K. L. R. Gleitman, and H. Gleitman . What did the brain say to the mind? A study of the detection and report of ambiguity by young children, In The Child's Conception of Language. Sinclair, A, R.J. Jarvella, and W.J.M. Levelt [eds.] Berlin Heidelberg New York: Verlag. 97-132.)
So I don't agree that it requires a high level of development of abstract processing to call a fiddle- shaped table a "fiddle". I would say that's a rather Piagetian way to put it: development first, and then learning.
Vygotsky would reverse that: he'd say that the child learns to call a table a fiddle first, and only then learns the paradigmatic conceptual structure that underlies expressions like "fiddle-shaped table", "island table", "dining-room table" and "hasack".
Seoul National University of Education
PS: I was born in Minneapolis, but I did my graduate work in England, so I sometimes say "flat" instead of apartment. Language is not decontextualizeable, but sometimes people are!
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