Re: [xmca] Leont'ev responds (in abstentia) to the Socio-CulturalTheory Interest Group Seminar Series

From: Kellogg (
Date: Fri Sep 29 2006 - 17:12:07 PDT

It's in "Thinking and Speech" that Vygotsky makes the argument that foreign language learning involves the learning of word meanings that are closer to scientific concepts than to every day concepts.

At first glance, this claim seems incredible; it flies in the face of everything we try to do when we teach foreign languages.

But it's true. Last night my grads were teaching two types of children's games that appear in our elementary English book here in Korea.

The role plays produced language that was quite linear, on a single "plane" of imagined reality, e.g.

"My friends called me 'Piggy'. So I cried. I'm so fat. Because I don't like fruit and vegetables. I always eat hamburgers and fried chicken."

The rule-baed games produced sentences that create imaginary situations, like this:

"If you land on this square, you will get another turn."

"The student who gets all the cards first will win the game."

"When you get to the last section, you will be finished."

It's really not hard to see that the "role play" sentences consist of a narrative, syntagmatic discourse strategy, and that is why they rely on what we used to call "compound" sentence structure.

In contrast, the rule based games (at the upper end of the children's zone of proximal development) require a hierarchical, paradigmatic, complex clause structure, where a backgrounded clause is grammatically dependent on a foregrounded one. And it's not hard to see why; when we discuss abstract rules, we have to create imaginary worlds, and the grammar does that by having one clause stand for a condition or background and the other one lay out the events contingent upon that background.

This is precisely the situation of foreign language teaching (and, as Vygotsky points out, literacy, although to a lesser extent). We cannot rely on non-verbal context to infuse text with meaning. On the contrary, we must use text as a background to conjure up an imaginary context.

I think it is for this reason that in all known languages (well, all languages that I know) scientific concepts come from outside the language, and are still encoded in words that have the strong foreign savour.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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