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Re: [xmca] Language and thought, unity and the particular, and the extent of mediation
Many thanks for YOUR postings on this. I want to do three things in reply:
a) Use what you've written to illustrate or at least illuminate a quotation from Ilyenkov, somebody I'm wrestling with at the moment.
b) Put forward the idea that the independence of thinking from speech comes AFTER their fusion and not before it, requires their clear differentiation as a prerequisite, and explains why immersion apparently leads to significant cognitive benefits BEYOND language and why Einstein believed (I believe mistakenly) that his gedankenexperiments were purely visual and not mediated by words.
c) Argue that for this reason Dewey's cooking experiments with children, repetition exercises in language classes, book-making and sticker gluing activities in fifth grade, and a lot of the "busy work" we see in Industrial Arts, Home Economics, and even Physical Education and Arts classes may be nondevelopmental.
Here's Ilyenkov on Spinoza, from Andy's new edition of Ilyenkov's "The Ideal in Human Activity", p. 24:
"From Spinoza's standpoint thought before and outside of its spatial expression in the matter proper to it simply does not exist. All talk about an idea that first arises and then tries to find material suitable for its incarnation, selecting the body of man and hi brain as the most suitable and malleable material, all talk of thought first arising and then being embodied in words, in terms, and statements, and later in actions in deeds and their reuslts, all such talk, therefore, from Spinoza's point of view, is simply senseless, or, what is the same thing, simply the atavism of religious theological ideas about the 'incorporeal soul' as the active cause of the human body's actions."
That corresponds exactly to what I got out of Spinoza's Ethics. It's not the case that "Deus sive natura" somehow thinks without man and only then through him. It IS the case that in man nature becomes conscious of itself. Before man, there is NO self-conscious nature whatsoever.
So why is the idea that experience PRECEDES expression so pervasive? Part of it is historical: the ROMANTIC idea that we are pent-up vessels of passion just waiting to explode, and every human life is a novel by Charlotte Bronte. Part of it is intellectual: as you say, it is very possible to read Jackendoff, Jones, Harris, and even some forms of activity theory (viz. Leontiev) in that way: first there was human activity, and semiosis was a kind of afterthought ("Language", ANL chastens LSV, "is not the demiurge of thought".) But part of it is backwards projection, reverse engineering, the tendency of verbal thinking to remake what was history as narrative.
When I was four, my parents moved to France, and I can still remember the long months of isolation on the playground in ecole maternelle before I acquired enough French to play with other children. It's well known that children in a similar "submersion" situation actually do less well than monolingual children for many years, and this is one reason why as late as the 1960s bilingualism was considered a learning disability (Macnamara, 1966). But since the 1970s, we've been aware that FULLY bilingual children (that is, kids with academic concepts created through foreign words) enjoy many of the same cognitive benefits as bilingual adults: they appear to have metalinguistic abilities (the abiilty to reverse phonemes, for example) and even conceptual abilities (the ability to understand hitherto unencountered sentences) that exceed that of monolinguals. Monolingualism, it appears, is a form of learning disability.
I think the explanation is that bilingualism allows the mind to differentiate thinking and speech for analytical purposes in much the way we have been discussing. LSV, a bilingual child himself, saw this very clearly, and that is why he draws such a clear analogy between foreign language learning, algebra and science concepts in T&S Chapter Six, even though on the face of it every foreign language has to be, to some degree, somebody else's everyday concepts.
So LSV was wise enough to say that it is no more correct to say that bilingualism is always positive than to say it is always negative (and even wondered aloud if "one parent one language" might be a useful rule; see Volume Four, p. 255). That means that the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are probably develpmentally sensitive. In particular, it seems to me that there is a particular Threshold (as Cummins would say) beyond which the benefits fall tangibly within reach. And beyond that threshold, it seems to me, speech seems to fall away, or, as LSV liked to say, "evaporate", and we are left with something very like Einstein's trains that move at the speed of light, dropping weights in an elevator, etc.; gedankenexperiments which do not appear to have anything to do with language at all but whose suspension of language, like their suspension of gravity, is absolutely dependent on speech-honed thought.
But I think the SAME thing can be said for any kind of educational activity. On my desk I have an attempt to follow Davydov in beginning the teaching of mathematics with MEASURING rather than with COUNTING. There are very obvious cognitive benefits in this move which we can see in the work of Schmittau: the kids are able to grasp part-whole relations much more quickly and this gives them a leg up on algebra.
It's a fifth grade class. The teacher is trying to teach it in ENGLISH. Because it's in English, the teacher is using something from the lower grades, and the kids are bored. Because the kids are bored, the teacher decides to motivate the lesson by having the kids measure bananas and honey and milk to make banana milk. Some of the kids do it, with gusto. Some of the kids do it, with incomprehension. And some of the kids ask when they can go back to their usual math class: now they are not simply bored, but insulted. I don't think a single one of the kids in the transcript makes the connection between making, mixing, and drinking and measuring. The lesson is, like so much of our English teaching, cognitively TOO LOW, too interested in purely lower level psychological functions as well as sociointeractively TOO DEMANDING, because the children cannot really do the activity in English at all and rely instead on ostension, gesticulation, and
demonstration. They would probably be better off, both cognitively and sociointeractionally, with translation!
Seoul National University of Education
PS: I think one of the worst examples of an investigator who interpreted Vygotsky as believing in pre-existing, unmediated thought was right there in Chicago: your own university's David McNeill. Because he rejected the whole idea of mediation, McNeill believed that gesture and speech were absolutely co-evolutionary, like twin wheels on the axel of thinking. It's hard to find a more ROMANTIC reading of Vygotsky!
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