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

From: Steven Thorne (
Date: Thu Jun 16 2005 - 13:37:28 PDT

Hi all --

Following up on Gordon Well's post, I too believe
there is a distinction between (material) tools
and semiotic (language-based) signs. But the
dividing line between them is problematic,
especially in the area of pre-existence vs.
dialogical emergentism (a binary that is
analytically useful but ontologically too

Material tools do exist in material form prior to
use whereas the actual vocalized utterance,
scribble on the page, ASL sign, or pixel on a
screen display does not. However, there is also a
case to be made that material tools, in part,
dialogically achieve their ideality through the
immediacy of use. For instance, two users may
differentially understand and employ the "same"
material tool, or adapt to or learn from one
another's tool use over time. Or together users
will create a new culture-of-use for a tool.

With language, I will pose the counter point.
Each instantiation of an utterance carries with
it the redisua of prior occasions of use. As
Gordon intimated, this is one of Bakhtin's
primary contributions, that language use and
learning is a process, more or less creative, of
the appropriation of others' words (I paraphrase
Bakhtin here), with both anaphoric and cataphoric
forces mediating its construction.

In this sense, while many facets of communicative
activity are emergent, signs are, in a very real
sense, pre-existing, at least in ideal forms.
Indeed, as Jim Lantolf and I describe in our
paper for this week, corpus analytic research
demonstrates that supra-word constructions and
formulaic sequences (i.e., pre-existing
utterances) comprise the majority of both spoken
and written utterances.

Though it is likely unnecessary to say this to
participants on xmca, language matters both at
qualitative (meaning, significance) and
quantitative (frequency and distribution) levels.
As the L1 researcher Dan Slobin argued more than
20 years ago that "language evokes ideas; it does
not represent them" and "linguistic expression is
not a natural map of consciousness or thought.
It is a highly selective and conventionally
schematic map" (1982: 132).

This articulates with our interest in cognitive
linguistics and linguistic relativity research.
Contemporary efforts in this area, while not
uncontroversial, provide compelling empirical
support for the relations between communicative
activity and the formation of higher order mental
functions (discussed not so much in the intro
chapter available for this minicourse but later
in the book).

Returning to the opposition that opened this post
- I'll finish up with a sticky utterance.
Building on Rommetveit, it is clear that
dialogical contingencies radically shift the
contours of languaging activity and its relation
to perception and cognition. But so too is there
a dialectical tension between the "pre-existing"
ideal form(s) of an utterance and its "more or
less" creative deployment in goal-directed
communicative activity.


>I have recently been reading Anna Stetsenko's
>introduction to the section in The Essential
>Vygotsky (Kluwer, 2004) entitled 'Scientific
>Legacy: Tool and Sign in the Development of the
>Child.' I found it a very helpful situating of
>the tool/sign issue in the larger Vygotsky
>project. Anna has agreed to have the article
>reproduced for our discussion and I intended to
>scan it and then post i.t. Unfortunately the
>software that comes with my scanner won't
>launch. But I'll keep on trying.
>Following on from previous discussion, I feel
>there is another distinction to be drawn between
>tool and sign (while acknowledging their
>similarity in mediating action). Tools (of a
>material kind) are usually already to hand and
>are 'used' in order to benefit from their
>affordances for the achievement of the intended
>action. Signs (of a linguistic kind) seem to me
>to be different. They don't preexist the
>signing/languaging operation that mediates an
>action which is often not fully envisaged in
>advance. Furthermore, signing occurs in a
>dialogic interaction with one or more other
>signers who contribute their own interpretation
>of the sign. Signs (or 'utterances' as Bakhtin
>would say) look in both directions - both to
>preceding utterances and to the anticipated
>response. To a degree, this still holds when the
>dialogue takes place in inner speech as such
>inner dialogue is ultimately part of a social
>activity involving other people and the tools
>that are also involved.
>Gordon Wells
>Dept of Education,
>UC Santa Cruz.

Steven L. Thorne
Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics
Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
Communication Arts and Sciences
Associate Director, Center for Language Acquisition
Associate Director, Center for Advanced Language 
Proficiency Education and Research
The Pennsylvania State University
Interact > 814.863.7036 | | | IM: avkrook

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