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Re: [xmca] Kindergarten Cram: When is play?
I'm really not expressing my own views on this stuff at all; I'm trying to make sense of what Vygotsky writes about writing in Section Four of Chapter Six; for those of you who do not have access; it's EXACTLY the section of Chapter Six of Thinking and Speech which Andy has up on the Vygotsky Internet Archive at:
The problem that Vygotsky's addressing in 6.3 is pure Vygotsky: it seems like a no-brainer, until you start to think about it, and then you find that you really haven't got a clue.
WHY is written language such tough stuff for kids?
For a terrifying moment, all you can think of is reasons why SPOKEN language should be tougher (and after all, it generally IS when you learn a foreign language). For example, there are WAY more phonemes than graphemes. The stuff of spoken language won't stay put while you look it up. It doesn't help to look stuff up anyway because the spoken language is absurdly polysemic and context bound.
Until the 1960s, the one POSSIBLE clue we had was that the GRAMMAR of spoken language seems pretty straightforward. And then some idiot invented a tape recorder that even academics could afford, and the next thing we knew we were analyzing things like this:
"But you can’t get the whole set done all at once because if you do you won’t have any left to use at home unless you just took the lids in and kept the boxes, in which case you wouldn’t have to have had everything unpacked first, but then you couldn’t be sure the designs would match so…” (Halliday, 1984: Introduction to Functional Gramamr, first edition, p. xxiv)
Now, Vygotsky gives us three good answers, and they all have to do with abstraction: the sound is abstracted away, the interlocutor is abstracted away, and the microgenetic reason to speak (the initiate, to use discourse analytic terminology) is abstracted away.
But in Vygotsky abstraction really is not a simple process: it's complex, and it's complex precisely because, as Mike says, it is in the final analysis (but only in the FINAL final analysis) always concrete.
For example, the polysemy that we see in spoken language (the multiple meaning of words like "I", "you", "this", "that" and also words like "free" as opposed to "liberty") is a form of GENERALIZATION from the concrete, a decontextualizing blurring of distinctions.
Abstraction is really the REVERSE process, a kind of sharpening rather than blurring of distinctions, and then a RECONTEXTUALIZATION, which I am not sure, but I think, is what Davydov calls ASCENT to the concrete.
MIKE SAYS: "Is this reformulatable, David? Sure you do not mean that written words on
pages are not sensuous, are not material and are purely ideal?"
DAVID SAYS: Nothing nonsensuous is human to me. But there is an important sense in which my own external speech is more material and less ideal (even to me) than my own inner speech. That's the sense in which spoken language is more material and less ideal than written.
Written language doesn't come with intonation and stress. It also doesn't come with facial expression and gesture. Finally, it doesn't come packaged in turns which can be interpreted, OCULARLY and AURALLY, through the interpretation of intonation, stress, facial expression and gesture, as requests or commands or questions or statements.
MIKE SAYS: And the "sense" able aspect of words may be reduced, meaning being the most stable aspect of sense, but absent entirely?
DAVID SAYS: No, you are right there. No, znachenie without smysl. Only smysl provides the cultural and historical environment in which znachenie emerges. But having emerged, znachenie becomes a tool for the elucidation and reconstruction of smysl, and virtually all of my smysls are constructed of znachenie.
However, what we just said is really just a paraphrase of what LSV is saying about written language. The vast majority of human languages are spoken but not written; written language is a tiny fraction of language use even in languages that have scripts, whereas I don't think there has ever been a natural human language which was written but not spoken, at least in the beginning. Having emerged, however, written language completely transforms the way we talk and even the way we think.
One way to read Chapter Two of Thinking and Speech is to say that for Vygotsky (and NOT for Piaget) so-called "egocentric speech", and then verbal thinking, inner speech, private speech, is literature for illiterates, abstract word meanings for the thinking analphabet, and emotion reflected in tranquility for the supposedly unreflective savage. That's why I think Piaget is ethnocentric and Vygotsky is very profoundly centro-ethnic.
MIKE SAYS: And there is NO, however indirect and ephemeral "request to respond"? If all
of this were pushed too far, I could make neither sense nor meaning of what
you wrote and would not be answering.
DAVID SAYS: No, you are right there too. I did a nice study on kids reading aloud using Wolff-Michael's "Praat" software to study intonation curves. Here was the text they used, written by a fourth grader:
I want play alway
Because I don't have play time.
Why I don't have play time?
Because School is over 3'o clock and I go to school (i.e. cram school) at 3' o clock and over is half past six.
therefore I dno't have play time.
But I'm not exasperating.
Why? because that time I study.
Then I increase ability.
I play on Saturday.
It even got published:
(Free pdfs available on request, as always!)
My question was at what point the kids know that "Why?" has to be UPWARDLY intoned, because it's an imaginary response to an imaginary interlocutor. The answer is...very late (adulthood, in fact). The native speaking child voice actors we hire to do the tapes for the Elementary English textbook, for example, do NOT know this.
What all this means is that your ability to communicate with me on xmca is late emerging, Mike. It requires considerable use of imagination on your part. Kids don't seem to be able to do it, and Vygotsky is really quite right to ask why.
MIKE SAYS: No written language, no volition?
DAVID SAYS: LSV has a kind of strange mode of argumentation by analogy here. Have a look:
"The substance is in the fact that the child knows how to decline and how to conjugate long before the child goes to school. Long before primary school the child has practically mastered the whole of the grammar of the mother tongue. He declines and conjugates but he does not know that he declines and conjugates. This activity is assimilated by him on a purely structural plane, just as was the case with the phonetic composition of sounds. If in the course of a particular experiment we ask the child in the first period of schooling to pronounce a given combination of sounds, for example “sk”, he will not be able to do it because such a voluntary articulation is difficult for hm, but in the word “Moskva” (Moscow) he pronounces the same sounds involuntarily and easily. In the interior of a determined structure these sounds appear by themselves in child language. Outside of this, these same sounds are not available to the child. In this way, the baby
pronounces a particular sound but cannot pronounce it voluntarily. This is a central fact regarding all the other verbal operations of the child. It is a fundamental fact that strikes us on the threshold of the school age."
Vygotsky has two logical leaps here that are a little hard to follow. At the beginning of the paragraph he argues that what the child gains from grammatical instruction is conscious awareness of his own syntactic processing. He then draws an analogy with phonetic processing. This analogy contains TWO assumptions.
First of all, the analogy assumes that phonetic processing is really a special case of morphological processing, just as morphological processing is a special case of syntactic processing. Halliday would disagree with this; for Halliday, the line of arbitrariness divides phonetic processing from morpho-syntactic.
To me it makes much more sense, because I don’t believe that morpho-syntactic processing is entirely driven by functional considerations and I don’t believe that phonetic processing is entirely arbitrary. So on the one hand. I think there is no particular reason why the English uses tense to talk about time, and on the other I think there are very good reasons why baby babble is incorporated into nursery rhymes and counting songs and even scat singing.
The second logical leap is that consciousness of a particular linguistic process (e.g. declining nouns and conjugating verbs) is equivalent to volitional control of it. It is easy to think of examples where this is not true: I can be acutely conscious of hunger or of having to go to the toilet but quite unable to control it. Yet this very example suggests that there is more than a germ of truth in what Vygotsky is saying, even in the case of purely physiological processes, and in the case of the higher psychological processes it seems to me that Vygotsky is once again on very firm ground. To know a word meaning is to have volitional control over it; as Bakhtin says, understanding is really nothing more than the ability to at least potentially make an appropriate response in kind.
The connection between volitional control of linguistic segments and writing is easy to demonstrated. For example, there are many writing systems which do not include phonemic analysis (e.g. Chinese). Adult Chinese people find it very difficult to make volitional combinations of well known phonemes, so for example, my mother in law, when she was here, simply could not say the word "kimchi" even though all of the phonemes in the word occur in Chinese. She kept saying "pichi", because for her the smallest available unit is the whole syllable (we made her eat piles of the stuff anyway, and she lost nearly fourteen pounds, poor thing).
MIKE SAYS: We only respond to the "immediate environment" (what is a non-mediated
experience of the environment for an enculturated person?). If "in the beginning is the act," why such a sharp divide here between orgal face to face and written xmca discourse??
DAVID SAYS: Oh, only because kids are very orgal face to face. They aren't yet enculturated into xmca.
Perhaps I am not either; I have never met you in the flesh, and it's something I rather regret, even if you do have cold fingers.
Seoul National University of Education
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