I guess I disagree that the etymology of words gives us a good idea of how concepts like ¡°consciousness¡± are really understood by the people who use the words.
I don¡¯t think etymology is IRRELEVANT. But I guess I think that scientific words are not that far removed from the gestures of the baby in the high chair that Vera is talking about. You really have to be there to figure out what they mean.
Words like ¡°consciousness¡± in a language are almost always FOREIGN words (and this is why the etymological chains for ¡°consciousness¡± are so rich and varied and overlap in so many places). I don¡¯t think this is accidental either, and in fact I think it is the key to the research Mike is referring to, the research that shows that successful bilinguals tend to be more successful at other kinds of school learning that are not obvious related to language (for example, maths). I even suspect that this is why successful bilinguals suffer less from Alzheimer¡¯s. But I don¡¯t think it really tells us very much about how people are thinking about consciousness.
In Korean, there are two words for ¡°consciousness¡± and they both come from Chinese. Of course that doesn¡¯t mean that when Koreans use these words they are thinking in Chinese (any more than when we say ¡°consciousness¡± we are thinking in Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit). It means that when Koreans use this word they do not want their interlocutors to think they mean an every day, pedestrian concept; they want to make it clear that they are not talking about likes and dislikes, pet peeves, passing thoughts, gut feelings, or fleeting perceptions.
I think that it's slightly more useful to look at structure (along the lines of ¡°con-scienci-ous-ness¡±. In Korean, the two words are ji-gak (in Chinese, zi-jue) and oui-shik (in Chinese yi-zhi). Both are compounds, that is, two-syllable combinations where each syllable can stand alone (and often does in the very spare and concise language that is literary Chinese) but usually co-occurs with some other word, often a near synonym. The relationship is something like the two parts of the word ¡°because¡±; ¡°be¡± and ¡°cause¡± CAN stand alone in English, but they mean something rather different (though not totally different) when we put them together.
¡°Jigak¡±, or ¡°zi-jue¡± means ¡°self-feel¡±, and ¡°oui-shik¡± or ¡°yi-zhi¡± means means ¡°will-know¡±). Again, this doesn¡¯t mean that when Koreans or Chinese use these words they are thinking of ¡°self-feeling¡± or ¡°the will to knowledge¡± (any more than when you say ¡°because¡± you are really thinking something like ¡°and let this be considered the cause¡¦¡±). When they use these words, they mean ¡°consciousness,¡± as surely as the baby who raises his or her arms means ¡°pick me up.¡±
The problem is not what they mean, but HOW do they mean it. I think that they "consciousness" by deliberately selecting an expression that is not going to be interpreted as an every day word. The Chinese origin is part of this, just as the Latin origin of ¡°science¡± is part of the interpretation of that word.
A somewhat bigger part of the interpretation is the structure of the expression, which suggests ¡®metacognition¡± in both cases (¡°the feeling of a feeler¡± and the ¡°willing of knowing¡±). But the main way they mean this is neither etymology nor structure, but rather context, and in this we are all like Vera¡¯s baby.
There is a difference though. The difference is that when I use an expression like ¡°jigak¡± or ¡°yizhi¡± or ¡°consciousness¡± you know to look in the co-text in order to CREATE the context in which the word is used for yourself. If I say ¡°this¡± or ¡°that¡± or even ¡°like¡± or ¡°hate¡± and nothing else, you really have to look around to see what I mean (and if I do this on an e-mail chat list you are really out of luck). Whereas, if I say ¡°self-feeling¡± or ¡°will to knowledge¡± or ¡°consciousness¡±, you may not know exactly what I am talking about, but you will at least know better than to look around the room in order to find out.
Yes, I think that is the real reason why all languages (that I know) use foreign language words in order to refer to scientific concepts. I also suspect that this is why successful bilinguals do better in maths, and why aging bilinguals have better back-up systems for thinking with when the primary circuits start to go on the fritz.On the one hand, bilinguals are used to looking in texts for answers rather than looking at facial expressions or looking around the room. On the other, they are capable of REVERSING the normal way of thinking (from context to text) when it doesn't work.
I think this is why Vygotsky, in Chapter Two of Thinking and Speech, spends so much time disposing of poor Piaget (who was, you remember, Janet¡¯s student!) Piaget believes that the primary learning mechanism of the child is simple ¡°displacement¡±. The child uses and reuses the same basic learning strategies as long as he/she can.
The second language is therefore to be learnt exactly as the first language was, from context to text. And the scientific concept is to be mastered just as the every-day concept was, gradually forcing out old concepts and replacing them with new ones, through assimilation if possible and grudging accommodation if absolutely necessary.
But for Vygotsky, this is impossible, simply because the child¡¯s social environment of learning has so radically altered when the child goes to school. The foreign language CANNOT be learnt as the first language was; the first language was learnt context first, and the foreign language has to be (nay, SHOULD be) learnt text first. The every-day concept was learnt unconsciously first, and the scientific concept must (and CAN) be learnt from dictionary definitions.
Perversely, Vygotsky CELEBRATES the difference, even though he acknowledges repeatedly that the price the child must pay is many years of study before anything like unconscious mastery can take place. Why is he so pleased that in foreign language study the first must be last so that the last must come first? Why does he INSIST on INVERSION rather than DISPLACEMENT?
It¡¯s not because he likes to torture little kids, or because he hasn¡¯t read Kenneth and Yetta Goodman on ¡°Vygotsky and the Whole Language Perspective¡±. (He read Tolstoy, and the ideas are very similar!) It¡¯s because he really does believe that it is this inversion of teaching orders that allows the foreign language to be built on the most developed part of the native language semantic system, and allows the scientific concept to be built on the most concept-like part of the child¡¯s conception system.
This is, after all, the real content of the zone of proximal development; the fact that instead of starting all over again in a foreign language or in scientific language, the child can build straight on top of the native language and the every day concept into the foreign language or the science experiment, using the highest level of semantic relations the child already has. The only condition is that the child must see those semantic relations as recontextualizeable, and of course with foreign language word meanings, the child can see them in no other way.
This is exactly why the current fad for ¡°task based teaching¡± or immersion or any other form of recreating the mechanisms by which first languages are learned is so wrong. Yes, it may work and help encourage a little more unconscious fluency, although it probably won¡¯t work very well, simply because a classroom can never hope to recreate the social environment of the kitchen high chair and even if it could the child will always see the classroom beyond the artifice.
But the cost the child must pay is the most valuable thing in the child's growing academict repertoire, namely the conquest of the abstract concept. And the cost to the teacher is the most valuable thing in the whole foreign language learning experiment. What child and teacher give up is all hope of teaching what a truly scientific understanding of what human language is and all hope of learning how even the mother tongue, that set of somethings that was everything the child knows, is really only one small instantiation of the human capacity for communication. The child remains in the state of a fish that cannot ever know what water is.
Seoul National University of Education
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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Mar 01 2007 - 10:36:50 PST