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

From: Wolff-Michael Roth (
Date: Thu Jun 16 2005 - 13:59:21 PDT

Hi all,
thanks to the previous commentators on this issue. I am surprised,
however, to see that nobody is making a difference in language at the
three levels operation, action, and activity and a related distinction
of signs/tools as primary, secondary, and tertiary artifacts
(Wartofsky, 1979).

Analyses of words that do not function as signs, that is, do not have
the referring relationship that is often attributed to them have been
provided by Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Davidson, Rorty, and others. We
use language in the same way that a blind person uses the
cane--Bateson's example--or the experienced carpenter uses the hammer
(Heidegger). In both instances, the sign/tool is transparent and used
roughly at the operational level (Leont'ev). In this situation, there
is no distinction between knowing a language and knowing one's way
around the world. This is the main point I am making in Talking
Science: Language and Learning in Science Classrooms (Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), where I also show how new languages
emerge, how we cannot decide on the usefulness of new language until it
has been proven useful, the mediational role of the context in this
emergence, and so on. (Sorry Jay, the publisher chose the title, my
proposed title was different)

The difficulty for many lies in the fact that language can function at
different levels of mediating artifact (Wartofsky). It may therefore
may make sense to look at other things that are signs, such as graphs,
and look how they are used, how they sometimes have indicating
functions, how they sometimes are the objects of actions, and how they
disappear (become transparent) in use. I provided such analyses, for
example, in Roth 2003, 2004a, 2004b. Once we have better understood the
role of these signs in their different use and functions, then we can
return to language and make some distinctions that are not evident
because the language itself does not tell us.

Roth, W.-M. (2003). Competent workplace mathematics: How signs become
transparent in use. International Journal of Computers for Mathematical
Learning, 8 (3), 161189.
Roth, W.-M. (2004a). Emergence of graphing practices in scientific
research. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 4, 595627.
Roth, W.-M. (2004b). What is the meaning of meaning? A case study from
graphing. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 23, 7592.

There are many more issues but not enough time to write about them.

On 16-Jun-05, at 1:37 PM, Steven Thorne wrote:

> 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 discrete).
> 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.
> Steve
>> 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.--Gordon Wells
>> Dept of Education,
>> UC Santa Cruz.
> --
> Steven L. Thorne
> Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics
> Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
> and
> 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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