Exploring children's learning
Exploring children's learning

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Exploring children's learning

5.2 Thought and language

For Piaget the development of thought and language was dependent on underlying ‘intelligence’. Language is therefore simply a reflection of mental ability: intelligence precedes language and is independent of it.

Vygotsky (1986) however, proposed that language has two functions: inner speech, used for mental reasoning, and external speech, used for communication with other people. He suggested that these two functions arise separately. That is, before the age of about 2 years, children use words purely socially, to communicate with others. Up to this point, the child's internal cognition is without language.

At around 2 years thought and language merge. The language that once accompanied social interaction is internalised to give a language for thought. This internalised language becomes a means of guiding the child's actions and thinking. As a result of internalising ‘social language’, the social environment becomes embedded in children's mental reasoning:

Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological) … All the higher functions [thought and language] originate as actual relations between human individuals.

(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57)

Between the ages of 3 and 4, children often talk to themselves. Piaget (1923) called this self talk egocentric speech. As children get older egocentric speech disappears and Piaget suggested this disappearance was indicative of the child becoming less egocentric. In contrast, Vygotsky (1978) identified self talk as a critical part of the child internalising previously external social speech. Further, unlike Piaget, Vygotsky did not believe that such speech disappeared. He argued that to believe this is like believing that children stop counting when they stop using their fingers to do so.

Vygotsky argued that self talk becomes internalised and guides the child's actions. Evidence supporting this is found when children are presented with tasks of increasing difficulty, when their conscious use of self talk is seen to increase in order to guide their efforts. Moreover, this type of speech is more common in cognitively mature and socially competent children. For Vygotsky the young child is an intensely social being and self talk is a crucial process in the development of inner speech and thought. Reading C is taken from Thought and Language (1986), in which Vygotsky writes about the significance of self talk.

Activity 5: Reading C

At this point you should turn to the end of this chapter and read Reading C, ‘Egocentric speech’ which is written by Vygotsky (1986).

Reading C (PDF, 2 pages, 0.2MB)

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