[xmca] LCA: Language and Activity

From: Mike Cole (lchcmike@gmail.com)
Date: Tue Jul 12 2005 - 17:11:31 PDT

I want to use something that Michael wrote earlier which connects up with a
intuition I have long held and which raises what I take to be the key issue
in this discussion
(which the various sub/side discussions are interesting contributions to, or
links to, or
thoughts engendered by).

Michael wrote, in part:

knowing a language and knowing your way around the world are
indistinguishable. We do not have to privilege words from the outset.
It is not words we learn, we come to identify recurrent sounds with
situations (this is the position amply described by Felix Mikhailov,
who builds on Vygotsky, Leont'ev, and others.

Here is my intuition and its source.

I have often asked myself, non-technically, intuitively, where does meaning
come from.
I have come to something like an Michael's answer in the passage above
(based upon
various academic sources to which more could be added, as he indicates) in
the following

I found myself trying to explain to undergraduates the idea that artifacts
are simultaneously ideal and material
and that this principle applies to language. To simplify, lets say, to the
words of a language. They generally find
this statement puzzling if not down right dumb. As a demonstration, I begin
to speak Russian as if I am simply
continuing the lecture and say something (in my version of Russian!) like: "
Well, suppose I start to speak Russian.
Who in this room understands what I am saying?"). Perhaps a few students
raise their hands, perhaps not. In
either event, I ask, " Just a while ago when I was speaking, you were
understanding what I was saying. Then I
began to speak Russian. You continued to experience the material aspects of
language, the sound vibrations
caused by the airsream I emmitted that then activated the cochleas in your
ears, but you did not understand
what I was saying. Where did the meaning go?"


"Where did the meaning come from when I was speaking English?"

In brief, my answer is that it came from a long history of joint activity
mediated by the lexicogrammar of the English
language with its particular historically accumulated of "recurring sounds
and situations." If there are people in the
room who understand me when I switch to Russian, we discuss a little the way
in which particular patterns of sound
have mediated our interactions in the past, such that in the present, we can
"re-present" those situations using the
sounds and current situation as contraints on arriving at a "common

People can, to a degree adequate to allow them to engage in pragmatically
sufficient joint actions, share "the same
meaning." They can sit at the same table. They can look at the same chair.
But their individual
experiences cannot be precisely the same because they do not share precisely
the same history of prior encounters
with chairs and tables. These, often subtle but never entirely absent,
variations, are the individual senses of the words.

English does not permit us to be clear about the distinctions implied by
what I have written. No language does, I strongly
suspect, although languages will differ in how precise we can be about what
given appropriate occaisions of joint
activity mediated by them.

For example, what I want to ask now is, "Does this make sense to you?" But
even if you were to answer to the very best
of your ability, I would not know if you and I shared the same meaning/sense
of what I have written.

For what it is worth.

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