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Language and Thought

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Two claims about the impact of language on thinking:
1) Vygotsky: Once acquired, language alters the way that children think 2) Whorf: The particular language that children acquire alters the way that they think

Piaget (1923) ‘The Language and Thought of the Child’
• Piaget observed what he called ‘egocentric’ speech: young children speak out loud in the presence of others but do not direct their remarks to anyone in particular. • He emphasized that children only slowly learn to adjust their narratives or their explanations to the informational needs of their listeners. • He concluded that ‘egocentric’ speech was gradually outgrown and supplanted by socialized speech.

Vygotsky (1986/1934) ‘Thought and Language’
• Vygotsky took a different view. He claimed that children’s early language was directed at a listener from the start. • Egocentric speech does occur but it is better seen as thinking (or planning) aloud. • As the child gradually differentiates between talk-for-others (communication) and talk-for-self (i.e. thinking or planning aloud), talk-for-self increasingly goes underground, i.e., it is not spoken aloud.

Evidence for Vygotsky’s alternative position
• When young children were placed in a room with peers who were speaking a foreign language or who were deaf-mutes, children’s egocentric speech virtually disappeared altogether. By implication, egocentric speech was aimed at communication – contrary to Piaget’s claim. Winsler & Naglieri (2003)

• Overt speech declines with age
• Inaudible speech remains roughly constant with age
• Reported inner speech increases dramatically with age

Egocentric Speech
• Consistent with his general orientation, Vygotsky assumed – unlike Piaget – that the young child is socially adapted. • Most of the evidence supports his claim that egocentric speech does not cease or get replaced by communicative speech. Instead, it goes ‘underground’ where it serves as a mental medium for thinking/planning/self-guidance.

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis or Linguistic Relativity
Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the theory that an individual’s thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks. Strong version – All human thoughts and actions are bound by the restraints of language Weaker version – Language only somewhat shapes our thinking and behavior. • Languages cut up and organize our construal of the world. A person learning a given language learns to construe the world according to the grid that is imposed by that particular language. • By implication, ideas that lie outside the language grid become ‘unthinkable’ or ‘difficult-to-think’. • Implies that people will construe the world differently depending on the language that they speak.

Interdependence or Independence
Three main functions of language to thought:
1) providing new ideas;
2) changing beliefs and values; and
3) assisting memory
* Language itself is neutral to the thought which it conveys. “Language and society are so intertwined that it is impossible to understand one without the other. There is no human society that does not depend on, is not shaped by, and does not itself shape language” (Chaika, 1989:2).

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