The Child and his Behavior. A. R. Luria

The Cultural Development of Special Functions: Speech and Thinking

We need to make some concluding remarks about the paths followed by the development of thinking in the child. In the light of the material included in our study, a brief summary should be easy; yet we have still not said enough to offer a general characterization of the development of thinking in the child. To do that, the question needs to be linked to a mechanism we have not yet discussed one that is surely the most important means of thinking: speech.

The notion that speech plays an enormous, decisive role in thinking has become established in recent psychological literature. Furthermore, many authors believe that when we think, we are silently saying to ourselves what we are thinking. They contend that thinking is speech without sound. According to this view, it is quite easy to explore the development of thinking by properly studying the paths along which speech develops; a wealth of vocabulary and linguistic forms will suggest a wealth of thinking, while the study of thinking itself is reduced to the study of individual speech habits.

Such an approach to the problem clearly has great pedological and pedagogical significance, since by studying speech we can resolve a number of practical questions having related to school and the education and teaching of children. Yet we should inquire whether this theory is valid. Is it true that thinking is simply internal soundless speech? Or that the thinking of children is merely speech poorly endowed with material and form, while that of adults consists of rich, soundless monologues, constructed according to all the laws of logic?

Let us now return to the development of thinking and speech.

There are many reasons for believing that the question is far more complicated that this theory assumes.

First we can point out that thinking and speech have undeniably different roots, and that in the earliest phases of development one can very often exist without the other.

We know, for example, that there can be forms of intellectual activity without any manifestations of speech at all. If we define intellect as planned, organized behavior aimed at the solution of certain complex problems, then we will find primitive forms of intellect where speech is still absent.

Above (in Chapter 1 of Ape, Primitive Man, and Child written by Vygotsky) we have described behavior, which can only be called intellectual, on the part of an ape. The ape was placed in difficult circumstances, being confronted with a problem it was quite unable to solve by the customary natural means at its disposal. It engaged in a series of planned, organized actions. For example, if some fruit it needed to reach was too far away, it would inhibit its immediate efforts, pick up a stick and use it to reach the fruit, inserting one stick into another if one was too short. One cannot fail to acknowledge that these actions are the result of intellectual activity, however primitive, though no speech was involved.

In another example, we might think back to the small children who badly wanted to reach something that was either too far away or too high up. They would drag in a chair from another room, stand on it, resorting to dozens of primitive but clearly inexpedient devices; they showed considerable “practical intellect”; yet the primitive forms of those actions may be observed in a period when speech is still either wholly or partly undeveloped.

In other words, intellect and thinking, as complex planned forms of behavior, may either arise in the period before speech, or they may develop quite separately from speech.

The converse is also true: we know of many instances in which developing speech is entirely unrelated to thinking, and where it clearly has grown from completely different roots and has a different functional significance.

The most primitive form of speech is, of course, the shout and other vocal reactions, occurring in connection with movement, powerful emotions, etc. These include exclamations and interjections at work, crying or laughter, shrieks of delight after a victory, or of terror during persecution.

Are these related in any way to intellect or thinking? They certainly are not. At their root lies a simple tendency to discharge tension built up in the organism; they cannot claim a greater role than that of simple expressive movements. Their basis is emotional; they do nothing to help man resolve complex real-life problems in an organized manner. They do not serve to plan the behavior of the subject, as they take place on another, non-intellectual plane.

At the most fundamental level, therefore, it is possible for speech not to coincide with thinking; it may remain a radically different and wholly autonomous process.

This failure of speech and thinking to coincide occurs not only at the remote, primitive levels of development, we know of some cases where it has occurred even at the highest levels of activity.

It has been proven that in a large number of cases thinking takes place without any evidence of the presence of even internal speech. One of the German schools of psychology, the Wurzburg school, has shown that intense mental work may proceed not only without words, but also without any images at all, often even unconsciously, so that a person may even be unaware of how a certain thought entered his head. Processes such as the act of pondering a chess board may also take place without internal speech, solely by means of a combination of visual images.

On the other hand, many types of speech found in the civilized adult are not directly related to thinking, for example, emotional speech, which serves, as we have noted, merely as a means of expression, and speech in its simplest communicative functions.

Speech and thinking may therefore occur separately also in the adult, though this does not mean that the two processes do not meet and have no influence on each other. On the contrary, the meeting between speech and thinking is a major event in the development of the individual; in fact, it is this connection that raises human thinking to extraordinary heights.

By observing the small child we can draw a number of conclusions with a direct bearing on our subject. Until his first birthday, the child is quite literally dumb. He does, admittedly, have numerous vocal manifestations, but these can scarcely be counted even as primitive forms of speech. A child shouts because something is bothering him, when he wants to eat, or after he has just woken up. He smacks his lips, wheezes, makes a number of inarticulate sounds familiar to anyone who has been involved with children but which it would be impossible for us to reproduce on these pages. Strictly speaking, the first sound we hear from a child is the first yell he utters on entering the world at birth. Of course, this yell is utterly unrelated to speech or the expression of any psychic states. It is merely a reflex act. Many other similar shouts and sounds that mothers are very fond of interpreting as manifestations of intelligent speech, are in fact still not speech, but simple reflexes of the vocal apparatus.

Yet it is these reflexes of the vocal apparatus that prepare the ground for the “greatest discovery in the life of the child” the moment when the child first realizes that these sounds and their combinations may actually signify certain objects, and that a great deal can be achieved through them. For example, by saying “um-um” food can be obtained, and by saying “ma-ma”, one’s mother can be summoned.

This discovery of the functional use of words, as a means for naming objects, expressing wishes, etc., does not, however, occur immediately. Observation of the child around the age of 1 year will reveal a tendency to imitate the sounds he hears. This is origin of the child’s word for the dog, “bow-wow”, and for the cow, “moo-moo”; it also accounts for a number of imitations of words used by adults, and supplies the prerequisites for the beginning of the functional use of words, which constitutes such an enormous turning point in the child’s life.

And there can be no doubt that such a turning point does occur. Speech suddenly provides the child’s primitive thinking, which had previously developed in timid, naive steps, groping its way forward, with new opportunities, by suddenly enabling the child to couch his wishes and urges in precise linguistic form whereby they may be more easily satisfied. All observations suggest that this is the primary, the most relevant and persistent function of speech. Once he has understood the meaning of words as a form of expression, and as a way of getting things he is interested in, the child rapidly begins to accumulate words and to use them for that purpose. In the child’s mind, the word “nanny” means more than just “nanny”: it means “nanny, come here”, or “nanny, go away”, or “nanny, give me an apple”. Depending on the circumstances it may have various meanings, while remaining an active form expressing in a single combination of sounds one whole desire felt by the child. The initial period of the intelligent use of speech is always a time of one-word sentences, of words that actively express the child’s intentions, or of words that highlight some element crucial to the child. This is the root from which other complex manifestations of speech become differentiated.

The actual transition from sounds to speech, from mere vocal reflexes to the intelligent use of words, what Stern calls the “convergence” of acoustical reactions and thinking, may be corroborated by one simple and evident sign: the child rapidly begins to acquire more and more new words, and enters a period of active and rapid enrichment of his vocabulary. This is truly the period of initial accumulation in the child’s life. Once he has discovered the value of words and learned how to master them, the child begins, whenever circumstances allow, to seek new words, by constantly asking how things are named, chattering endlessly, and repeating an increasingly supply of new words, thus enriching his vocabulary. After a while comes the period of active word-building when the child begins to supplement the shortcomings of his vocabulary with new words that he himself has spontaneously invented.

For the observer this is truly the most curious period in the child’s life, and for the child himself it is the most important period, without which his thinking would be unable to progress and develop.

K. Chukovsky recently published an interesting book on the language of the child during this period, in which we can find many examples of how the child, during this period of the active acquisition of vocabulary, does not confine himself to the accumulation of existing words, but manufactures, from the material at his disposal, an increasing number of new words enabling him to master an increasing number of new concepts. [35] For example, if a thing belongs to everybody, and everybody may use it, the child defines it as vsyekhny (from vsyekh, everybodys’); the tool used for digging becomes a kopatka (invented from the verb kopat, to dig, though the real word for spade is lopatka); similarly the word for loop, petlya, is distorted to tseplya (from tseplyat, to make a loop); if the sense of the word utonula, meaning “it has sunk”, needs to be refined to mean that the doll in the bathtub has not sunk irretrievably, that it may again float back to the surface, the child seeks to convey that nuance by adding on prefixes not associated with this verb, saying that the doll pritonula (“sank to”) or vytonula (“sank out”). One of these children, dreaming about his future occupation, decided that he would able to repair his mother’s sewing machine and would therefore become a mashennik (from the noun mashina). We shall not quote examples from the material in Chukovky’s book, but simply note that it clearly illustrates the active nature of the child’s word-making activity, together with the intensive and rapid process of acquisition and enrichment of vocabulary.[36]

And this process really does take place. Tracy, for example, reports that at the age of 12 months, the child’s vocabulary consists of only 4-10 words; by the age of 2 it rises to an average of some 300 words, and by the age of 3 years exceeds 1,000 words.[37]

This stage in the development of the child is of enormous, fundamental importance: speech begins, for the first time, to be used as a device for expressing certain contents, while thinking becomes oral and is for the first time stimulated to develop. If a child is capable of using the neologism vsyekhny, this means that he has mastered a new concept; when he speaks of a doll that pritonula or vytonula, he has clearly formulated and mastered a new shade of meaning.

The fact that speech and language are vital levers in the progress of thought and the formation of new concepts has been brilliantly demonstrated by a number of experimental studies carried out by numerous psychologists. It is naturally difficult to study the process of the formation of new concepts, because concepts that may be new for one person are already familiar to another.

For this reason, Ach decided to develop in the child some entirely new experimental concepts, and to do so with the help of words as auxiliary tools. His experiments were successful; and he was able to observe, in the laboratory, how the child uses auxiliary words to elaborate new concepts.

The experiments were conducted as follows: a number of figures with three or four different features were laid out before the child: they differed by virtue of their shape (cube, cylinder, pyramid, etc.), their size (big and small) and their weight (heavy and light). The experimenter sought to elaborate in the child some new, previously non-existent, concept, such as the concept of big and light objects, small and heavy objects, etc.). Ach proceeded to elaborate such concepts by means of conventional words. The child would take one object (say, a big, heavy cylinder) and at the same time read out an inscription containing the meaningless syllable rass; he would then utter that same word while picking up other objects which, though shaped differently, possessed those same features. He would then name another object (say, small and light) gatsun, and repeat that word when picking up objects with those same properties; big, light objects were given the conventional name fal, while small, heavy ones were called laro. Transcending the object’s individual features, the child was required to learn how to master those new combined concepts, and then, having elaborated them with the help of the words proposed, he was expected to know how to select, from the general pile of objects, figures possessing each of those combinations of features.

Under these artificial conditions, the study probed the extent to which the child was able to elaborate new concepts, and the extent to which the words helped him perform this task.

Ach’s experiments were divided into two series. First the child learned the name of each individual object; then the inscriptions with the “names” were taken away, and the child was required to find among the entire series of objects ones with the names rass, fal, taro and gatsun. For obvious reasons it proved impossible for them to memorize all these combinations solely by means of their mechanical memory, and the successful solution of the problem showed that the corresponding new concept really had been elaborated.

As the experiment showed, the problem was too difficult for most of the children, while at the same time the ease with which individuals mastered it varied immensely.

These experiments, which at times may seem highly artificial and remote from real life, did however show one thing – in them the child, with the help of a conventional word, was able to construct a new concept and master a problem that he would otherwise have found impossible. Language is here a tool of thought, as well as a tool for the consolidation of memory: in other words, a mnemotechnical tool.

This latter process plays a significant role in the child’s life. School learning, by intensively stimulating the development of speech, at the same time causes a number of substantial changes in the psyche of the child. The child’s enriched vocabulary, and speech, which is taught and which serves to construct concepts, alter the child’s thinking, bringing greater freedom, enabling it to operate through a number of general concepts formerly beyond the child’s grasp, and allowing a new and previously embryonic logic to develop more fully. Moreover, even functions such as memory change abruptly as soon as speech begins to predominate in the behavior of the child. It has been reliably established that in children of school age the process of the development of memory moves from the optical-graphic towards the verbal type. Whereas during the preschool years the memorization of visual objects was no weaker than the memorization of words, or even stronger, now the picture changes sharply: the child of school age on average begins to shift closer to the verbal type of memory, as words and logical forms begin to play the role of decisive tools in his memory. About that same time we find a diminution of the astonishing visual-graphic memory, known as “eidetism”, which prevailed at an earlier age (we have already dealt with this subject above).[38]

Speech occupies the commanding heights and becomes the most commonly used cultural device, while enriching and stimulating thinking; and the child’s psyche acquires a new structure. The verbal mechanisms that were vividly expressed during the period of active speech, or “initial accumulation” now shift to internal, inaudible speech, which in turn becomes one of the major auxiliary tools of thinking. After all, how many complex and subtle intellectual problems would remain insoluble, were it not for our internal speech, by means of which thinking may cloak itself in precise and clear forms, and it becomes possible for us to test and plan various solutions on a verbal (or rather, intellectual) basis.

Whereas, in Marx’s classic comparison, the architect, unlike the bee, builds an entire structure after careful consideration, planning and calculation, to a great extent we owe this vast advantage of intellect over instinct to the mechanism of internal speech. The role of speech mechanisms in human behavior far exceeds that of mere expressive reactions. They fundamentally differ from all other reactions in that they play a specific functional role: their action is addressed to the organization of the further behavior of the personality, and preliminary verbal planning is the sphere in which man achieves the highest cultural forms of intellectual behavior.

By turning inwards, speech forms a most important psychological function as the representative of the external environment within us, stimulating thinking and, in the opinion of several authors, also laying the foundation for the development of consciousness.

The primitive forms of verbal activity in the child to which we referred earlier, all the periods of childish chatter and “collective monologues” are a preparation for those stages of development in which speech becomes the pivotal mechanism of thinking. It is not until that final period that speech ceases to be a cultivated external device and becomes an internal process: only then does human thought acquires new and vast prospects for its future development.