Language and Thinking

I think it was the Russian psychologist, Vygotsky, who first associated child development with social interaction, and the crucial role of language in particular. Can humans think without language? Do we need words to reason and reflect on our experiences? Interesting questions that have fascinated me all the way through my teaching career. I have always believed that Vygotsky’s work is fundamental  – that language, in the form of listening and speaking, leads learning.

So, imagine a young child who has just touched a hot oven. Such a child does not need words to remind him not to touch it again: experience is enough. The child learns. Some concepts can surely be absorbed without words. But imagine a different scenario. How might we gain a concept of the moon? Most of us can never experience it – but through the use of language and a description of its attributes, we can conjure up an idea of what it is like. Without language, most of us would have no idea about oceans and mountains – unless we are climbers or deep sea divers. Remote concepts need words.

I’ve just invented a monster that can fly – with pink feathers, five heads and six legs. To do this, I have to know about birds, flying, colours, numbers, heads and legs, for such a creature to even enter my head. I needed to attach words to my experiences, in order to create my imagined monster.

You may wonder where I am going with this thought. Without some experience and knowledge of these things, I could not use my imagination to create something else. Therefore, in my view, lower level concepts enable higher level concepts – in particular, the imagination.

Too many children are arriving in school without the language needed to describe, think, reflect, challenge and imagine. Why? Because much of today’s interaction is not with people – but with screens. Furthermore, such interaction is mainly a one way process – with screens leading the action. Vygotsky would surely turn in his grave. So what can we do to ensure that children have the language skills they need for learning in this modern world? We can never turn back the clock, and technology is not all bad. Firstly, talk about everything you do as a family – nouns and verbs are the labels of living. Expand on language at every opportunity. Limit the time spent on tablets and computers. Interaction is meant to be social. At mealtimes, sit at the table and talk! If every child arrived in school able to describe, challenge others’ views, explain, question and reflect, and applied such skills to learning throughout school – the collective results would rise through the roof. Language rules. Go for it!

Sylvia Edwards

My book – Parents: Help your child succeed: At Key Stage 1: currently available as an ebook and also available soon in printed form



« Back to Blog