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

From: david kellogg (
Date: Mon Oct 02 2006 - 19:11:40 PDT

Do children who "acquire" a foreign language OUTSIDE the classroom acquire scientific concepts with them?

Piaget's answer is simply no. In "The Child's Conception of the World" he is trying to show how the child lacks any sense of the arbitrariness of language. Most of his children say that words mean what they mean because of the things they mean (like Vygotsky's example of a child who claimed that a dog with horns would give milk).

But when he asks Zwa, who is 91/2 and who speaks German, where words come from, Zwa says that words are created by God "and the Germans". Piaget's mind is made up already; he doesn't see anything remarkable about this answer! (Piaget, 1929: 81).

I suppose that in so far as the child's language consists of names for every day objects (the concept of language that St. Augustine had in mind and that Wittgenstein was appalled by), Piaget's answer is good enough. The experiences that words stand for are everyday experiences, whether the words are native or foreign language words. The child's experience of an apple is the same whether it is mentally labelled "pomme" or "pingguo".

In fact, I question whether there is any distinction between the foreign and the native language in the young bilingual's mind; I remember as a four-year-old that I spoke French to my older brother Ken and English to my parents but I also remember thinking that this was just like using "Dad" to one person and "Ken" to another.

The problem is that there is worm in the apple. Here's some evidence. Our kids here in Korea have an amazingly difficult time distinguishing the following sentences:

a) "I like apples."
b) "I want an apple."

Instead of a) they tend to UNDERgeneralize, like this:

"I like Apple" (where apple appears to be a proper noun, just like the character named Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh.)

"I like a(n) apple (where apple appears to be a particular apple, as in the Prokofiev opera, "Love of Three Oranges".)

Matters are not made easier by "communicative" efforts to foist adult socio-pragmatic competence onto children by "rewriting" sentence b) like this.

T: Say 'I'd like an apple' not 'I want an apple'.

They are also not made easier by the fact that even as children tend to UNDERgeneralize their nouns (identifying classes with examples) there is a parallel tendency to OVERgeneralize verbs (using "do" "be" and "like" for just about every conceivable thing that a child might do, be, or want).

S: I like an apple.

Clearly the child is on to something: the idea of a paradigmatic structure "apples", "an apple", and even "the apple" and "an apple named Apple" is in there somewhere, or rather out there in the language system.

The reason why I think this is an incipient scientific concept is that the child's own language, Korean, has no such grammatical distinction, since Korean has neither articles nor a generalized system of inflection for plural and singular that applies to every noun.

The child has clearly NOT mastered this distinction, any more than Zwa has mastered the idea that symbols may be arbitrary and artificial. But the idea is out there, and the child is starting to sniff at it in a way that the child would not if the child were stuck in one language (like the vast majority of American children). I really think that that is what child errors of overgeneralization and undergeneralization mean; the child is trying to find the right level of abstraction for things and actions in the new language.

Eventually, children do, and when this happens it will involve the kind of comparative thinking that Vygotsky says transforms the relationship between the mother tongue and the generalized human capacity for language in a way that is quite analogous to the relationship between arithmetic and algebra: he will see the mother tongue itself as merely one possible instantiation of the human ability to make meaning. That's a big difference; it's like a fish being able to see water.What could be more scientific?

Actually, I think this IS related to Piaget's very conservative attitude towards play (in "Play, Imitation and Dreams in Childhood" he argues rather scandalously that play is ALWAYS assimilative and never invovles accomodation). Clearly, Piaget had taken on too much Freud and thought that the impulse towards mindless pleasure had to be overcome for the child to become an adult (just as Pamina must forsake her mother and cleave to her lover in the Magic Flute). For this reason, Piaget is particularly hard on role play! (See, for example, Piaget 1962: 87, 100, 130, etc.)

Interestingly, the only kind of play Piaget really approves of as "accomodationist" is "constructive" play, which is peculiarly close to work, or "task based teaching" as they like to say in applied linguistics these days.

Once again, Piaget fails to recognize that that there is something out there, even in role play, tugging the child in the developmental direction. As with Zwa, he sees only half of the picture; the conservative, assimilationist half. He ignores the element of becoming and only concentrates on what the child is busy being.

So Piaget doesn't see that children do NOT always asimilate role play to sensorimotor play. He doesn't see that the child who conceives of the game of soccer as a role play, with himself in the role of a hero, will lose often enough to make him want to learn collaboration and rules. He can't see the worm in the apple, the Greeks in the Trojan Horse, the implicit role play in sensorimotor play, or the implicit rule play in games of make believe.

But Vygotsky must have read Volosinov's criticism of Freud. With his historicizing view, it must have occurred to him that for most of human history the idea of putting kids in same age cohorts and having them listen to a teacher instead of playing in different-age cohorts must have seemed pretty weird.

So it's Vygotsky who fully realizes the developmental role of play. It's Vygotsky who points out that all role plays have implicit rules which eventually become explicit. It's Vygotsky who argues that action-centred play gives way to meaning-centred play, and that role-based games cede to abstract rules and eventually to school learning. This is because it's Vygotsky who recognizes that the sources of zone of proximal development lie outside the child in the social environment of learning, whether that social environment is the school or, as it was for most of human history, the playground. .

But I'm afraid I never QUITE accepted your extension of the zone of proximal development to human evolution in "Cultural Psychology" [p. 161], Mike! I always seemed to me that when Vygotsky said "development" he meant ontogenesis, and that the ZPD was meant to explain the link between microgenesis and ontogenesis. Play does do that in a way that evolution does not!

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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