Re: LCA: Getting started with tools, signs and activity

From: Ana Marjanovic-Shane (
Date: Tue Jun 14 2005 - 23:24:22 PDT

Dear LCA community (enthusiasts and skeptics),
In the times before universal literacy and mechanical press, when books
were written and published by hand, discussions of important texts were
written directly around the original texts and published as the margins
written by great scholars. What we are doing now (again on XMCA) is the
same activity. With the contemporary technology we have something those
ancient people could not even dream about: instant discussion across the
whole planet, and instantly publishable for each other. Really amazing.
Anyway, I spent the whole day reading the excerpts from Vygotsky -- the
first reading on the list, and re-reading the other excerpts from
Vygotsky -- from the "Concrete Human Psychology" on the same website for
Winter 2005 discussion. The two connect extraordinarily well.
I just want to add some remarks on the margins of both texts:
Since Phil started with the paragraph regarding the Diagram (on page 4
of the excerpts), let me continue. It is clear from this paragraph and
from other places in this reading that Vygotsky wanted to make a
distinction between the nature of the mediating function played by tools
on one hand, and the nature of the mediating function played by signs,
on the other. While tools change the nature of the physical act aimed at
a specific material object(s), signs change the nature of the inner
activity aimed controlling one's own behavior. This distinction is not
always clear in contemporary expansions or critiques of Vygotsky's
theory. But from the paragraph below and from several other quotations
(in the "Concrete Human Psychology
reading) one can see the effort Vygotsky was making to clarify this
In the "Concrete Human Psychology" he shows that signs are socially
constructed in order to regulate or "control" social relations, and when
the social interactions become internalized, signs then mediate between
"the man and his brain" or between "me" and "I". In fact, it is the
signs that enable construction of higher psychological functions out of
the social relations, events and experiences. What is interesting here
is the role of signs in internalizing interpersonal relationships into
conscious, willful control of one's own behavior.
And so, although both the tools and the signs act as mediators, they are
very different and they act very differently in the processes of
To make this more concrete (to ascend, so to speak :-), here is an
example of what may become internalized.
One of the very first words that my older son used to utter in the
middle of the night when he was about one year old, was "my! my!". I
would ask him "Do you want to come to MY bed?", and he would say "yes".
That use of the word "MY" always impressed me (an adult, a mother and a
researcher of language development) as a very deep foundation for what
that word would develop into later. From "MY" - meaning really: "your
bed", or "yours" or, maybe, "us together", or "warm", or "cozy", or
"milk", or "take me to your side", or all of this together -- to "MY" as
an indicator of something that belongs to "ME". From a clearly
interpersonal meaning to a very personal meaning in the later life.


Phil Chappell wrote:

> Dear Language, Culture and Activity enthusiasts,
> We finally have the papers posted on the site; I've included the URL
> again, with a ? at the end, as for some reason it fails to launch an
> updated version in some browsers
> You'll see we have three broad strands for discussion, the first,
> which I'm introducing here, being a kind of eclectic mix of readings.
> The Vygotsky extracts are there as a refresher for many on the
> fundamental role of tools and signs in human activity. The A.A.
> Leontiev paper, focusing on speech activity, is for me a deceptively
> easy read, but underlying it is a solid foundation of activity theory
> developed by A.A.'s father, A.N Leontiev. For example, AAL invokes the
> consciousness of the learner in the learning process, considering
> motives, actions and operations, as well as considering speech
> operations in speech acts. So, a paper introducing, so to speak, a
> mediational theory of mind involving tools and signs, and a paper
> based upon activity theory that considers foreign language learning.
> Once we have covered these, Steve Thorne will lead the discussion of
> his co-authored paper on what he and Jim Lantolf have called a
> "Linguistics of Communicative Activity", or LCA. That will then
> provide some kind of segue into a main theme of this enterprise - how
> the work of Halliday and colleagues might inform the theory of human
> activity in which so many of us are interested.
> I'm never very good at asking such a diverse group of scholars a
> question that will hopefully motivate you to tap away at your
> keyboard, so I'd rather paste a paragraph from the Vygotsky extracts
> that for me sums up the essence of what LSV was "meaning", and ask for
> some comments and clarification, especially on the role of language.
> Over to everybody...
> Phil
> We must emphasize also that our diagram [FIGURE 1 ON PAGE 4 - PC] is
> intended to present the logical relation of the concepts, but not the
> genetic or functional (on the whole, real) relations of the phenomena.
> We would like to point to the relation of the concepts, but not in any
> way to their origin or real root. So conditionally, but at the same
> time in a purely logical scheme of relations of the concepts, our
> diagram presents both types of devices as diverging lines of
> mediating activity. The second point we have developed consists of
> this. A more substantial difference of the sign from the tool and the
> basis of the real divergence of the two lines is the different purpose
> of the one and the other. The tool serves for conveying man's
> activity to the object of his activity, it is directed outward, it
> must result in one change or another in the object, it is the means
> for man's external activity directed toward subjugating nature. The
> sign changes nothing in the object of the psychological operation, it
> is a means of psychological action on behavior, one's own or
> another's, a means of internal activity directed toward mastering man
> himself; the sign is directed inward. These activities are so
> different that even the nature of the devices used cannot be one and
> the same in both cases.

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