Vygotsky on Thought and Language

Lev Vygotsky discusses the symbiotic nature of thought and word and the relationship between child development and appropriate methods of instruction.

[W]e all have reasons to consider a word meaning not only as a union of thought and speech, but also as a union of generalization and communication, thought and communication. The conception of word meaning as a unit of both generalizing thought and social interchange is of incalculable value for the study of thought and language. It permits true causal-genetic analysis, systematic study of the relations between the growth of a child’s thinking ability and his social development. …

To devise successful methods of instruction the school-child in systematic knowledge, it is necessary to understand the development of scientific concepts in the child’s mind. … What happens in the mind of a child to the scientific concepts he is taught at school?  What is the relation between the assimilation of information and the internal development of a scientific concept in the child’s consciousness? …

[A] concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a complex and genuine act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can be accomplished only when the child’s mental development itself has reached the requisite level. At any age, a concept embodied in a word represents an act of generalization. But word meanings evolve. When a new word has been learned by the child, its development is barely starting; the word at first is a generalization of the most primitive type; as the child’s intellect develops, it is replaced by generalizations of a higher and higher type—a process that leads in the end to the formation of true concepts. …

Practical experience also shows that direct teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless. A teacher who tries to do this usually accomplishes nothing but empty verbalism, a parrotlike repetition of words by the child, simulating a knowledge of the corresponding concepts but actually covering up a vacuum. …

In formulating our own tentative theory of the relation between instruction and development, we take our departure from four series of investigations. Their common purpose was to uncover these complex interrelations in certain definite areas of school instruction: reading and writing, grammar, arithmetic, natural science, and social science. … Much interesting material came to light on the development of oral language and written language during school age, the constructive levels of understanding of figurative meaning, the influence of mastering grammatical structures on the course of mental development, and the understanding of relations in the study of social science and natural science. …

Development and instruction have different “rhythms.”  These two processes are interconnected, but each of them has its own measure. … The school years as a whole are the optimal period for instruction in operations that require awareness and deliberate control; instruction in these operations maximally furthers the development of the higher psychological functions while they are maturing. …

The relation of thought to word is not a thing but a process, a continual movement back and forth from thought to word and from word to thought. In that process the relation of thought to word undergoes changes that themselves may be regarded as development in the functional sense. Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them. Every thought tends to connect something with something else, to establish a relation between things. Every thought moves, grows and develops, fulfills a function, solves a problem. This flow of thought occurs as inner movement through a series of planes. An analysis of the interaction of thought and world must begin with an investigation of the different phases and planes a thought traverses before it is embodied in words.


Vygotsky, Lev. Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986, pp. 9, 146, 149-150, 179-180, 185, 218. || Amazon || WorldCat


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