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The language and thought of Piaget

September 4, 2012

This is the second essay from Duckworth’s The Having of Wonderful Ideas and it focuses on Piaget’s thoughts about the role of language in intellectual development. Piaget did not assume that the language that children use was necessarily a true representation of the child’s thinking. Piaget wanted to look past the language and truly focus on the child’s thinking. In Piaget’s later work (post 1935) he made a conscious effort to look not at what children said but at what they did, believing that their actions would offer a truer view of their inner thoughts. In this essay Duckworth offers some examples to illustrate how a person’s inner thinking and their external language might not coincide.

“I have a feeling Jack is in one of his mood’s today.” Many of us have had thoughts like this or expressed a similar sentiment to a friend. In many cases the speaker would be hard pressed to state in words what ‘Jack’s mood’ is exactly. However, this does not mean that the speaker does not have ideas about Jack’s mood. Could not recognize and determine how to respond to Jack’s mood. This is an example of someone having thoughts but not possessing the words to express these thoughts externally.

Other examples of thoughts existing independently of language are the fact that essentially the same thought can often be expressed verbally in many different ways; it is easy enough to construct a sentence that is grammatically correct but which does not express any real thought; sometimes when reading, the reader will pause and ponder the meaning of a sentence to discover that a complicated and muddled sentence is expressing a simple and elegant idea.

Piaget’s books The Origins of Intelligence in Children and The Construction of Reality in the Child focus on the development of intelligence in infants prior to the development of language. Piaget found that infants interact with their surroundings via their actions and that they (in Duckworth’s words) “are making refinements and connections in their actions – ‘thinking’ in their actions – long before there is any use of language.” Examples of this ‘thinking’ include learning how to grasp objects, learning which objects will swing when pushed and which will not, etc. In the case of learning which objects will swing or which objects will fall the infant is engaged in an early example of classifying and making lists. Piaget believed that at the pre-language and pre-symbolic ages an infant’s knowledge consisted of what the infant ‘knew’ how to do. These actions are more than simply motor skills or muscle memory. When a child learns that something will swing when pushed the child may continue to push the object with different hands, from different angles, with his feet, etc. In this way we see that the idea that the object swings when pushed goes beyond a single specific occurrence.

At the earliest ages Piaget believed that infants lack the capability of representation. Infants do not plan or imagine interactions with objects that are not immediately present. Infants live and act ‘in the moment’. In Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood, Piaget describes his thesis that internal imitation is the child’s first internal representation – the first instance of thinking without actions. Unfortunately, Duckworth is not a fan of the english translation of this book.

[This reminds me of a comment Brian made about how when you think about an action what happens in your brain (the synaptic firing?) is exactly the same as when you actually carry out the physical action, except that one additional thing occurs that stops you from physically acting. If this is true, then it would make sense that the development of external action would precede the development of internal representations of those actions.]

At a young age, when children first start to use language, they are primarily engaged in ‘egocentric thought’. This means that whatever the child is thinking about, he assumes that everyone else is thinking about the same thing. If the child points at a car driving by and his mother says ‘car’ the child might actually be focusing on a dog riding inside the car. In this case the child is likely to think that ‘car’ is the word for the dog. As children age they start to move way from egocentric thought but they never completely lose it. People of all ages tend to interpret other people’s comments in terms of ideas they were already thinking or that they have thought in the past. This very often leads to miscommunication where one person gives a less than complete description (thinking that the other person is already thinking similar thoughts) and the listener interprets these statements in terms of what he is already thinking. In this way both the speaker and the listener can believe they have had a successful communication.  Both the speaker and the listener have complete pictures in their minds, but in fact these pictures may differ significantly from one another. Teachers must be very cognizant of this fact when listening to a student explain an idea and when explaining an idea to a student.

[I can see how actions, diagrams, physical manipulatives, etc. can help lessen these discrepencies in communication. When two students are discussing and one students hands the other a piece of equipment and says ‘here you try’ that can be a significant aid in their conversation and their group cognition.]

In one experiment (described on p. 23) young children were shown a picture of horses and cows and agreed that both creatures were animals. The interviewer then asked the children ‘Are there more horses or more animals?’. The children would often respond that there are more horses because there are only two cows. When asked what question they had been asked the children would respond that they were asked ‘Are there more horses or more cows?’ Piaget interpreted this to mean that the children had difficulty conceiving of horses as both horses and animals at the same time. For whatever reason, the comparison between horses and cows is the comparison that makes sense to the children so this is the comparison they make. In fact, this is the comparison they believe they were asked to make. At older ages I’m not sure if students would still mishear the question, but there are certainly instances when the student may answer a different question (without internally or externally acknowledging that it is a different question) because the question that was asked does not make sense or does not seem natural to the student.

The gist of this essay is that ideas can exist internally, independent of language; and that language can be learned and used independent of internal ideas or understanding. This makes sense to me but it is also at odds with some other experiences. There are many times when I myself or my students will say and believe that we understand something, but then when we attempt to put our understanding into words we realize that there are logical inconsistencies or that there are steps missing in our argument or our understanding. It seems like our internal idea does exist independent of words. However, the act of putting our idea into words can force us to make the idea more precise and thereby finding gaps in the idea that we did not previously recognize. I would like to be able to connect these two different perspectives relating thought and language.

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