Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Thougt and Language

Another book of Vygotsky is Thought and Language, which studies the relationship between thought development and language.

Thought development and language

Since available technologies are limited in the early 20th century, he started with the analysis of apes’ language to study human mind development. Vygotsky reviews experiments of apes speech in which apes do have a relatively well-developed “language”, but it lacks intellect. That is, apes’ language is entirely subjective – can only express emotions, never designate or describe objects or express thought. On the other hand, apes have thought process thanks to its usage of tools at primary level.

Given the facts, Vygotsky claimed that thought and speech have different genetic roots, and two functions develop along different lines and independently of each other up to a certain point in time. Apes and infants do not go beyond that point, and their actions have only a subjective meaning. However, human beings, at the very young age, they exceeds the point, and then thought becomes verbal, and speech rational. (page 79 to 83) The transformation that the child experiences after exceeding the point is essential and qualitative; it is not the continuation of the development made so far. After that point, the nature of the development itself changes, from biological one to socio-historical. That is, when thought and language become intertwined in their development, the driving force of the development is the socio-cultural factors that one experiences in his or her life.

Vygotsky thus concludes that thought development is determined by language, i.e. by the linguistic tools of thought and by the sociocultural experience of the child. Thanks to language, children can develop inner speech, which is essential to enhance intelligence of the human beings.

In more detail, Vygotsky thought that human beings mental operations generally develop in four stages. In the first stage, speech lacks intelligence and thought lacks language. The second stage is called naïve psychology, in which a child begins to use tools as the application of experience. In the third stage, a child counts on his fingers, resorts to mnemonic aids, and so on. In speech development it is characterized by egocentric speech. The fourth stage comes at the end, and the child begins to count in his head, to use logical memory to operate with inherent relations and inner signs, i.e. external experience is internalized in the childs sign system. (page 86 to 87)

Development of concept

Another question was how people develop conceptual thinking, which is vital part to build the sign system within human beings. Vygotsky argued that the first phase of concept formation is complex formation, i.e. the child unites diverse objects in groups under a common family name, the formation process that goes through several stages. The second phase is the formation of potential concepts, which is formed by singling out certain common attributes in complexes. In both, the use of the word is an integral part of the developing processes, and the word maintains its guiding function in the formation of genuine concepts, to which these process lead.

Vygotsky thought that the development process which enable concept formation begins very early stage at childhood, but it takes time until the intellectual functions form the psychological basis of the process of concept formation ripen, take shape, and develop. The development by which one can achieve concept formation is not the quantitative growth from the earlier stage, but it is the qualitative new leap.

In the first stage, word meaning denotes nothing more to the child than a vague syncretic conglomeration of individual objects (page 110). Then during the next stage, word meaning is about the organization of the childs visual field. In the next stage, ones syncretic image is composed of elements taken from different groups or heaps that have already been formed by the child.

Having gone through the process above, the child will undergo thinking in complexes. Complex is composed of many concepts (e.g. an apple is composed of such concepts as red, sweet, juicy, etc). According to Vygotsky, there are five types of complex: associative type, collections, chain complex, diffuse complex and pseudo-concept (phenotypically resembling the adult concept, but psychologically very different one).

The principal function of complexes is to establish bonds and relations. Complex thinking begins the unification of scattered impressions; by organizing discrete elements of experience into groups, it creates a basis for later generalizations (concept formation).

Upon complex thinking, one can attain concept formation, which requires abstract thinking, i.e. single out elements from a complex. Concept formation is not that easy. When we see one complex, say, an apple, we find many concept in this complex sweet, red, juicy, etc. That is why the concept formation should follow the many stages mentioned above. In the beginning, one starts with the potential concepts, or the elements chosen as having common natures, and after then one can finally form concepts in his or her mind.

Thought and word

In the final part of this book, Vygotsky tried to explain the relation between thought and word. For the more sophisticated analysis, he divided word into phonetic word (voice) and semantic word (meaning), speech into external speech and inner speech, and thought into verbal thought and non-verbal one.

According to Vygotsky, speech and thought collectively create dynamic process. They are delicate, changeable relations between processes, which arise during the development of verbal thought (page 254).

Vygotsky argued that thought is engendered by motivation (desires, needs, interests, and emotions). Then, the thought generates inner speech, then in meanings of words (semantic), and finally in words (phonetic). The process is very complex, and since a direct transition from thought to word is impossible, there is always the hidden thought, the subtext. This dynamic process creates and leads evolution of thought and speech, or the inner sign system of human beings.


The book was a bit verbose (frequently digress from the main line and jump into analyses of others studies), and it took time for me to fathom what the author mentions. Moreover, even without digression, the concept mentioned in this book was not easy to me.

The implication is tremendous. The book brought me about more profound understanding of words and speech. It also gave me the opportunities to think about the value of writing blog: as the outer speech (writing as well) is deeply interconnected with my thought, blog writing is the process to verbalize my inner speech, and lead to the evolution of my mind and thought. If I succeeded in verbalizing my thought, I would be able to initiate the deeper conversation with myself (by seeing this blog), and that would bring about the further evolution of my mind. Empirically, that is what happened when I wrote my Japanese blog, and hope the same in this blog.

Reference: Lev Vygotsky, "Thought and Language", The MIT Press (revised edition), 1986/Aug/28

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