Friday, June 17, 2011

To what extent do thinking and language develop separately.

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The interrelation between thinking and language can be considered in three possible ways. Firstly, language detemines thinking. Secondly, thinking determines linguistic developement. Finally, thinking and language begin independently but eventually interact to determine interllectual and social development. Before examining these propositions it would seem necessary to define the main concepts. Many everyday concepts become very complex when it comes to a concise definition and in psychology it depends who is defining them. A general and hopefully neutral definition of thinking is; any covert cognitive or conscious mental manipulation of ideas, images, symbols, words, propositions, memories,concepts, perceptions, beliefs or intentions(1). Language is the use, vocally or sub vocally, of a system of arbitrary conventional symbols by which we convey meaning.


The linguistic relativity hypothesis was put forward independently in the 10s by Whorf and by Sapir. This hypothesis claimed that language determined thought and peoples perceptions of the world. Empirical evidence such as Hopi indians lack of past and future tense verbs, or Eskimos plethora of words to describe snow was given in support of the theory.


The lack of time related verbs could be explained by the lifestyle of the Hopi, or rather advanced societies preocupation with time. Eskimos reliance on understanding snow must play a part in their language construction(how many words do we have to describe vehicles). The fact that Hopi or Eskimo can be translated into english illustrates a basic commonality, every culture knows what water, sky, air, food are. Human needs and basic desires must be the same across most cultures.


The Whorf-Sapir hypothesis is wrong to assume that language determines thought processes. Thought processes can occur when language is absent. There are five cases in history of powerful rulers instigating experiments to test this. The most well documented case was that of Akbar, Mogul Emperor of India(154-1605). Twenty to thirty infants were interred with silent caretakers for fourteen years, none of the children developed language but they had adopted a gesture system to convey their thoughts and announce their needs.(Campbell and Grieve 18). Feldman(et al.)(178), investigated six congenitally deaf children in Philadelphia, where the authorities had instructed the parents not to gesture to them formally or informally(lest this interfere with their motivation to aquire language--their theory!!). Deprived of speech and signing, they developed their own gesture communication system, they could combine gestures to make short gramatical statements at about the same age as normal children could construct two word utterances. William James(180) cites the case of a Mr Ballard, a deaf-mute instructor at Washington National College. Mr Ballard travelled the world extensivly with his father in his childhood before he recieved any communication training. He could recall in his isolation thinking about the origins of the world and mankind and many other concepts.


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Thought can exist without language and there are many activities which demand a high level of cognition but do not require any language at all e.g. painting, or whistling tunes. Language needs thought but this is not the end.


The possibility that thinking determined linguistic development was implicit in many of the theories of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget one of the leading figures in developmental psychology.


Piaget provided a great insight into childrens thinking. Piagets theory gives us stages from which the child must progress with its thinking. In the sensori-motor stage, basic thoughts appear after a reflex stage. In the pre-operational stage thought based operations occur. Planned behaviour begins in the concrete operations stage, with the ability to reflect on these behaviours. Abstract thought is possible in the formal operations stage and the ability to imagine what others may think.


Piaget did not place as much stress on language aquisition as other theorists. Piaget recognised the importance of language but preferred to consider language as part of an larger concept Semiotic function, this also includes imagery, role- play, gesture, drawing, etc. He decided that as language was a part of semiotic function then it must develop later than thought but language profoundly transforms thought by allowing for more advanced conceptualization.


The lack of emphasis on language by Piaget may have contributed to the re-evaluation of his work by Margret Donaldson. In her book Childrens Minds(178) she revisits some of Piagets famous experiments. The Three Mountain experiment, to test a childs ability to decentre and conservation experiments, to examine if a child could carry out reverse thinking(remembering how something was and relating it to how it is). Donaldson redesigned these experiments or reworded the instructions or rearranged the conservation material accidentally. Donaldson et al(175) obtained much better results than Piaget. Their explanation was that they had used experiments that made human sense. They had used concepts and language related to the testees ages. This illustrates that communication must be in context. Further, Donaldson states that the adult testers with experience of language and context unknowingly confuse the child. The point of Donaldsons argument is that Piaget believed that children and adults understood words and their meanings in the same way but as illustrated by her research this clearly is not so. Older children therefore conserve not because of a cognitive shift from stage to stage, but they have developed both their thought and language in conjunction with adults, until the context and meanings are understood.


The above conclusion by Donaldson brings us to the third possibility of the interrelation of thought and language. This can be shown in the works of Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist.


Though very little evidence was put forward, Vygotsky decided that language and thought developed seperately. Further, Vygotsky called language without thought social speech, a reflection of received speech, and a required reaction to others. At the same time infants were developing primitive ways of thinking and reasoning, without language.


Both Vygotsky and Piaget both agreed on the age of two years when language and thinking come together. Words begin to act as symbols and the child can begin to use words to explore its own and others thoughts. The interaction with others is the main thread of Vygotskys theory, and the development of language interacts with that of thinking. Alexander Luria was a pupil of Vygotsky and made a major contribution to the understanding of brain function. Luria demonstrated the regulative function of language in a series of experiments with childrens motor responses to coloured lights. Initially the child followed an adults instruction, eventually the child directed herself with overt speech, the language acting as a regulator of actions. At about five years of age the actions were carried out in silence, presumably the speech had become internalized and the language and thought becomes one (Luria 161). Another important theory put forward by the Vygotskian school is social cognition. Social cognition is the ability to reflect on our own and others thoughts, to put ourselves in the mental position of others. The importance of social cognition in daily communication(the resultant of thought and language) can be demonstrated by people who have a deficit in it. One of the characteristics of Autism is the deficit in conceptual role-taking(thinking yourself in anothers position) ( Baron-Cohen 18b). This deficit manifests itself in the awkward communication of autistic people. Similarly, many autistic people cannot comprehend turn-taking another crucial element in verbal communication.


Thought can exist alone but it is an impoverished system. Language embelishes the system and the more sophisticated the society the higher level of communication is needed the more expressive a language must become. Deep and expansive thought is only possible with the enabling quality of language. Whorfs evidence was from less developed societies, the members of which when inculcated in a more advanced society soon adapt to that way of thought. Piaget gave us a deep and expansive theory of child development but in placing less emphasis on language ignored an important part of the equation. Vygotskys position strikes a balance between the polerized views of Whorf and Piaget. Vygotsky and his followers e.g. Luria and Brunner have given us a theory emphasising social factors in the development of thought and language and a concept of Social Cognition which seems to be the direction of research at present.


(1) Penguin Dictionary of Psychology. A.S.Reber 185


-Feldman, Goldin-Medow and Glietman....Action, gesture and symbolthe emergence of language. 178.


-Campbell and Greive......Historiographia Linguistica...18


The Above two from..The Psychology of Language and Communication.


Ellis and Beattie...186


-James.W...... Principals of Psychology.....180


-Donaldson. M. ...Childrens Minds....175.


-Baron-Cohen. S...From O.U. Introduction to Psychology..11


Ed. I.Roth.


-Luria.A.R. .....Speech and regulation of behaviour..161


FromIntroduction to Psychology-an Integrated approach...Lloyd and Mayes..184


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