[xmca] B.V. Belyayev

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Thu Apr 12 2007 - 16:34:00 PDT

Frankly, Belyayev is not very good when he tries to describe exactly how children "fold away" the mediating link of native language word meanings and move from treating a foreign language as a set of "second order symbols" to the stage of what he calls "thinking in a foreign language".
  It's not really his fault. He's trying to make an emulsion of two sets of ideas that really don't mix, and like salad dressing they keep settling out. On the one hand, he STRONGLY believes in the distinction between smysl and znachenie:
  p. 87: "A word has sense in so far as it expresses a concept present in one's consciousness at the moment when one uses this word. A word also has a definite meaning, which is conditioned by the way in which the word can be related to the object which it denotes."
  In fact, he takes it even FARTHER--he distinguishes, as very few linguists were and are able to do, between discourse (that is, process) and text (that is, product). Linguists are ALWAYS getting these two mixed up (Henry Widdowson is the only other person besides Vygotsky who could ever get them straight):
  p. 70: "The problem of the interrelations of speech and langauge are also cmoplicated by the fact that the actual word "speech" is ususally used in two different senses. In some cases, we use speech to describe a specific human activity, the actual process of communication as realized by linguistic means. In other cases we use "speech" to describe what is the result of this process--that which is created by man when communicating with otehrs and which to some extent becomes remote, as it were, from the actual person."
  This is really the key to Carol's remark about scientific concepts and foreign language concepts. Carol takes us RIGHT back to Chapters Five and Six of "Thinking and Speech".
  Children's experience of their native language is simple. A given situation automatically gives rise to discourse. When they actually go to school they accept, rather reluctantly, that this discourse may be written down and realized in texts.
  But in science class (and in foreign language class) we are asking them to do something that seems pragmatically pointless. We are asking them to take a text, pretend that it is a discourse, and then create, on the basis of this made-up discourse, a purely imaginary situation.
  For example, in the world of the science classroom, we may pretend that we are doing "experiments" and discovering scientific laws. But if the experment goes wrong, they will have to do it again, because what they are really doing is not discovering scientific laws at all but taking texts and re-enacting them to re-create the underlying discourse, and demonstrate the abstract laws that were given to them a priori in the text.
  Similarly, in the world of the foreign language classroom, they find the world they are used to completely turned upside down. In the real world, discourse roles (mom, dad, even teacher) are fairly clear cut and grammar rules are very abstract and word meanings tend to be negotiable. But in this weird corner of their world, things go the other way around: we've got explict rules about what words mean and how they go together, but who is Jinho and who is the teacher and who is Mrs. Smith all seem to be negotiable.
  I think if Belyayev were true to his vision, which is Vygotsky's and Volosinov's, he wouldn't have any problems. Kids make the transition to "thinking in a foreign language" as soon as they can figure out the pragmatic point of all this. They are "thinking in a foreign language" when they realize a discourse from a situation in that language, or as soon as they can realize a discourse and a situation from a text in that language.
  They apprise the context without translating, whether that involves confronting an actual real life situation or re-enacting a discourse from a text. They are thinking in a foreign language when the situation represented by that language arises in their minds without recourse to the mediational link of the mother tongue.
  This is at first true of material situations. But in the classroom it often has to be true of imaginary situations, in which we can include all theoretical knowledge. It's a long row to hoe! Fortunately, the child's not alone.
  Do these words sound familiar to anybody?
  p. 103: "The word 'soznaniye' consists of the root-word 'znaniye' and the prefix 'so', which indicates the joint nature of that which is denoted by the root-word. Thus 'sochuvstviye' is understood as common feeling, soavtorstvo as common authorship, etc. Similarly, from a psychological point of view, human consciousness represents the combination of common knowledge possessed by people in virute of the fact that they carry out labour in common, and when doing so communicateby means of language. This is why consciousness is closely linked with langauge and why 'to be conscious of' and 'to call' are almost the same thing."
  Well, when that happens in a foreign language without the use of translation, we can say the mediational link has been folded away.
  The problem is that poor Belyayev also believes (or anyway, he says that he believes) that language is a second signal system; that is, a set of "reactions to reactions". It's not to difficult to see how this will muck things up. It even cramps Belyayev's style.
  p. 73: "Being the activity of an individual person, speech has as its basis those nervous-cerebral mechanisms which, taken as a whole, are called the second-signal system and which functions on specific terms of inter-relation with the first signal system. From this point of view a word is a conventional reflector-stimulus of a special category--a 'signal of signals'. The individual use of language presupposes the formation of the appropriate dynamic stereotype in the cortex of the large cerebral hemispheres. but so far as language is concerned, neither vocabulary nor grammar is investigated in connection with any nervous cerebral mechanisms."
  You can see that that last sentence is an oil bubble in the salad dressing; it don't fit and won't last. Belyayev has made a distinction (which he admits is unstable) between "language" (basically Saussure's 'langue' with some historical trappings) and "speech" (a psychological function). And the second-signal system applies only to the latter.
  No, this still won't do. As soon as we say that language is a set of reactions to reactions, then foreign language becomes a set of reactions to reactions to reactions, and the best we can hope for is to speed up the reaction time. There is no way children will ever be able to respond directly to context in a foreign language, because they are not even responding directly to context in their OWN language!
  That goes against the empirical evidence that Belyayev presents in Chapter Four, which shows no significant difference between the reaction times of competent bilinguals (which include both people who picked up languages abroad and people who began foreign language study in Russia but at primary school level) in tasks such as association and generalization.
  The "functional equivalence" I meant was precisely in these association and generalization tasks, Mike. But Belyayev is also very big on discriminating similarities and differences, and I have always felt that "repetition" and "variation" are linguistic functions that are present in all languages and allow us to speak of functional equivalence across contexts. They don't allow us to say much, but they do allow us to speak of development.
  To tell you the truth, everything I know about Vygotsky and Luria in Uzbekistan I learned from you, Mike, in "Cultural Psychology" and "Making of Mind" and your articles in Mind culture and Activity.
  But there's no doubt LSV was in Tashkent; there's a photo of him there, teaching some students who look very Korean to my eyes. Uzbekistan was full of Koreans, apparently because Stalin, the George W. Bush of the USSR, thought they looked Japanese and didn't want them hanging around the Eastern border (you get hit with a plane of Saudis so you go and invade Iraq.) With "independence", a lot of Uzbek Koreans have been 'repatriated', and in Uzbekistan that means sending them to Russia!
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Thu Apr 12 17:43 PDT 2007

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