Virginia F. Doherty

EDUC 800

Final paper
Spring 2002



How Language Shapes Thought

Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them.


     More than a century ago in Belorussia  a scholar was born, who studied and wrote prolifically about how language shapes thought.  Succumbing to the ever prevalent tuberculosis  his short life ended 38 years later.  His 270 pieces of work in psychology, philosophy, social sciences and linguistics clashed with the Russian post-revolutionary theorists of his  time and therefore went underground.  Now, in this century they provide a  vital framework for modern language acquisition theorists and have practical implications in the foreign and second language classroom.

       Born into an educated family in difficult times for Jews,  Lev Semenovich Vygotsky’s short life spanned pre- and post- revolutionary Russia.   Because of a quota system for Jews,  his chances for a good education were limited;  however,  he managed not only to attend private school but also win the lottery for acceptance into university.  Once in university,  because of his religion, Vygotsky was not permitted to study education which would lead to a teaching career.  So he started with medicine and then switched to law.  To satisfy his avid curiosity of humanities, he entered another university and studied literature, philosophy and psychology.  In 1917, at the height of the Russian Revolution, Vygotsky graduated from both universities and returned to his town which was ravaged by famine and disease.  His mother and brother suffered from tuberculosis.  Lev Vygotsky nursed them both which led to his contracting the disease and his early death.

     Following his love of humanities as well as his hunger to know more about cognitive language development, Vygotsky started his prolific writing career.  He wrote articles about art and literary criticism as well as medicine and law.  In the late 1920s, Vygotsky narrowed his research fields and therefore his writing to educational psychology, educational research on mentally and physically handicapped children and psychopathology.    All of his fields dealt with speech development in children and the pedagogical  applications.  Conscious of the political situation in revolutionary times, Vygotsky claimed that all of his research and theories could be understood through general Marxist theory.  He sincerely saw dialectical materialism as a possible avenue to explaining problems facing scientists at the time.  And he stressed, as did Marx, that every phenomenon  has its history and that history is characterized by change.  He tried to relate Marxism to psychology.   But little did he know that in post-revolutionary Russia, such thought would be labeled “anti-Marxist”.

     In the early 1930s, Stalin announced that all scientific theory had to be based directly on the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin (Kozulin, 1986).   Experimental psychology and  methods which accepted cross-cultural analysis and /or psychoanalysis were looked at as ‘bourgeois’ and therefore, erroneous.  When the Central Committee wrongly understood that he wanted to do mass psychological testing on all children, Vygotsky and his followers had their  research funding cut, their laboratories closed and their works suppressed.  Vygotsky was considered a Russian chauvinist for ‘suggesting that nonliterate peoples had not yet developed the intellectual capacities associated with modern civilization. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 10)  For 20 years, all leading psychological journals ceased publication and all psychological testing which was not approved by the Central Committee was halted.

     Even though Vygotsky’s work was suppressed in the early 1930s, he already had a following of scholars who were using his theories and building on them.   Vygotsky at this time was gravely ill.  He died in 1934 at 37 years of age.  His ideas did not die with him.  Russian scholars such as Alexander Luria, a neuropsychologist,  A.V. Zaporozhetch a Russian psychologist and early childhood specialist, and N.G. Morozova and expert on special education and parapsychology, continued many of the studies begun by Vygotsky.  His theories are very much alive today in the fields of both first and second  language acquisition.  In fact, in the 1960s the Soviets rediscovered Vygotsky, whose name had been taken off the register of Russian scientists.  In 1962 his work started to appear in English in the U.S.  His entry on the American psychology scene  was attributed  in part to the growing popularity of his contemporary, Jean Piaget, who had gained recognition for his developmental theories on speech and language.  The era of the behaviorists was fading and the social constructivists brought Vygotsky to the forefront.

Major Theories

 ...the speech structures mastered by the child become the basic structures of his thinking.


     How language developed in children surfaced as one of Vygotsky’s main research areas. Vygotsky looked at how the language of a child went through specific stages in its development.  These stages were interrelated not only to speech and thought, but also bound by culture.   As children learn language they move from the first stage of social speech which are trial and error sounds used to control the behavior of others, to the next stage of egocentric speech which is a highly social kind of talk.  After these two stages then they are ready for the final developmental stage of speech which is inner,  unheard speech or thought.  To illustrate these steps,  in the first stage, a child cries and gets attention or says a sound and gets a response.  In egocentric or social speech, children talk whether or not someone is listening to them. It is speech for the speaker.  An example would be parallel play often seen in pre-school and Kindergarten classes.  Inner speech reflects a higher mental function according to Vygotsky.  This is speech for communication and reflects a synthesis of  mental functions and denotes the ability for deep, reflective thought.   Communicative speech uses the ‘sense’ of words and sentences.  This ‘sense’ is found in the social, cultural context in which the words are being used.   Prior thought, imagery, experience and inner conversation go into framing what is actually spoken.  (Vygotsky, 1986)  This third stage is much more a mental than a physical process.  The goal of this final stage in speech development is to bring forth a coherent, mutually understandable thought. (Vygotsky, 1986)

  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.


     After 1924 Vygotsky aimed his research towards  studying the development of consciousness and conscious speech.  This trend was in direct conflict with his contemporary, Ivan Pavlov and the behaviorist theories which were in vogue in Russia at that time.  In a speech which Vygotsky gave to the Second Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad, his thesis was simple.  He took aim at the behaviorists by stating that scientific psychology cannot ignore consciousness.  Stimulus-response might provide information about conditioned  behavior but it tells nothing about conscious behavior.   Vygotsky’s speech earned him a position in the Institute of Psychology and from there he continued his research on language and thought.  Unlike Pavlov, Vygotsky believed that response, especially verbal response was intricately tied up in the socio-cultural context.  Responses are not innate but rather dependent on the social institutions of the culture and the experiences of the subjects.  Language passes through the three developmental stages (external, egocentric and internal) molded by external cultural situations.  These cultural situations, influences and experiences guide the language development in terms of concepts and structure. (Vygotsky, 1978)

     The way in which children are impulsed or guided from one stage  of development to the next is what Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development”.   Simply put,  ZPD is the difference between the child’s capacity to solve problems on his/her own and the capacity to solve them with the help of someone who knows.  The ‘someone’ can be an adult or another child who has already mastered the concept.  In Vygotsky’s words, ZPD “... is the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”  (Vygotsky, 1978, p.86)  What a child can do with guidance one day is the new developmental level of the child the next, as the child does the new action successfully alone.  For Vygotsky, this ZPD theory had profound implications for education. He felt that society should seek the elimination of illiteracy and that it should be done by establishing programs which maximized the potential of individual children. (Vygotsky, 1978)

    “What the child can do in cooperation today, he can do alone tomorrow.  Therefore the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it...” (Vygotsky, 1986) Education should reflect this idea of someone who knows mentoring the one or ones who don’t know yet.  He himself had a tutor throughout his school years.  The tutor was well schooled in the Socratic method and would engage the young scholar in question and answer sessions.  He was encouraged from an early age to question and to find the answers deep within himself with the guidance from someone who already knew the answers.  This background is reflected in his ZPD theory and of the value of mentoring.  The mentor should give hints and suggestions that lead the child to the right answer.  In this way, scaffolding provides support to the child as he or she climbs towards the right solution or answer.

     Vygotsky distinguished between two forms of experience which lead to two kinds of learning.  He calls one ‘scientific’ and the other ‘spontaneous’.   Scientific learning occurs in a teacher based classroom where the knowledge is imparted and imposed on a child in a logical manner.  Spontaneous learning emerges from a child’s learning from everyday experience.  The learning or discovery is usually based on something which interests the child and therefore he pursues it for the sake of understanding.  These two kinds of learning work together since the scientific way organizes knowledge and the spontaneous way stimulates the desire to learn.  If they work together effectively then the learning will be more concrete and relative to the learner. (Vygotsky, 1986)

     Another essential aspect of Vygotsky’s theories on language and thought is that language learning is a social activity which depends on a child’s interacting with peers, society and the environment.  The authenticity of the environment is very important in guiding the learner towards what they need to know and providing what the learner wants to know.   In terms of pedagogical implications, the learner should  study topics which are interrelated and related to the interests of the child.  Teachers should begin with what is familiar and guide the learners in a circular path of learning, relating, reviewing and increasing the information.  Then the cycle starts again with what is known and it is reviewed, related and increased.   Some visual images of Vygotsky’s plan in education are the braid where language, thought and experience intertwine, or the tornado which starts narrowly focused and spreads and rises as the structures grow.  Each visual shows the linkage of related topics and connections which make learning more relative. (Wink)  The classroom should reflect that the student is there to take an active part in learning rather than that the teacher is there to impart knowledge.


Vygotsky’s theories in use today

The structure of the language one habitually uses influences the way he perceives his environment.


     As we look at Vygotsky in 2002, his ideas do not seem revolutionary.  He believed that learning had to be developmental and that it had to take place through socially meaningful activities.  He also distinguished between two kinds of learning: scientific and spontaneous.   Vygotsky believed that language structured a child’s speech because speech reflected socio-culture exposure and experiences.

     Stephen Krashen, a prominent theorist in second language acquisition uses  Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development when he talks about his own ‘input hypothesis’.  Krashen describes how language acquisition takes place when the learner receives language input that is slightly beyond his/her current language competence.  He uses the formula i+1=acquisition, in which i equals information and 1 means one level above the learner’s language competence. Another similarity between Krashen and Vygotsky is in the concept of acquisition of language versus learning of language.  These terms of Krashen correspond to Vygotsky’s terms of scientific and spontaneous learning.   Krashen believes that the two are independent systems of language performance.  One is ‘acquired’ and the other is ‘learned’.   The term ‘acquire’ or acquisition relates to Vygotsky’s ‘spontaneous’.  The child acquires language through a subconscious process and it is gained through meaningful interaction in the target language.  It is dependent on natural communication. The ‘learning’ is a conscious process which is brought about by formal instruction.  This happens in the classroom under the auspices of a teacher.  Krashen differs from Vygotsky by giving an  unequal value to the two systems.  Whereas Vygotsky saw the two systems working together to concrete the learning process, Krashen believes that the acquisition way of learning is superior and should be used predominately and the learning should surface to correct, plan or edit second language speech. (Krashen, 1988)

     A major theme in the constructivist framework of Jerome Bruner is that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas based on their interests or socio-cultural exposure.  Bruner learned about Vygotsky through Vygotsky’s devoted student and colleague, Alexander Luria.  Luria asked Bruner to write the introduction to the English translation  of Thought and Language which was published in 1962.   Bruner wrote in 1964 in an article called Cognitive Growth, that language was  a crucial part of the child’s symbol system and a ‘means, not only for representing experience, but also for transforming it.’ (Hunt p. 386)   He contended that thought was a way of organizing perception and action.  He also believed that context determined content.  In these theories, Bruner followed Vygotsky’s lead.    Bruner was also fascinated by Vygotsky’s ZPD and set up experiments to test the value of a tutor in a learning situation.  His experiments encompassed teacher-student pairs, mother-child pairs and child-child tutoring pairs.  Bruner found that in all cases the teacher in the pair was able to move the child to the next level by working slightly above the level of complexity of the child.  Bruner called the scaffolding help which the tutor provided LASS, or Language Acquisition Support System. (Bruner, 1986)



Piaget and Vygotsky

Although we consider [Piaget’s] theory as the best of its kind, we developed our own theoretical position in exactly an opposite direction.


     In Thought and Language  Vygotsky devotes a chapter to Piaget’s theory of the child’s speech and thought.  He starts the chapter by saying that “psychology owes a great deal to Jean Piaget’. (p. 12)   Piaget also divides cognitive development into stages ranging from sensorimotor in which intelligence is manifested in motor actions to the final stage of formal operations which involves thinking abstractly.  The stages correspond roughly with Vygotsky’s stages of speech.

    What corresponds more closely to Vygotsky are the academic implications of Piaget’s cognitive theories.  Both theorists recommend that the classroom provide a rich and stimulating setting for children to be able to play, problem solve, and manipulate using concrete objects.  The learning activities must be real and relative to the children and the teaching methods must involve the students by presenting challenges. (Singer, 1978)

     Even though there are many similarities in the basic concepts of Piaget and Vygotsky, there are also differences.  One of the most striking divergences between the two theorists is the importance of culture and environment in the developmental stages.  According to Piaget, the stages are biologically determined.  The stages follow chronologically and sequentially at certain ages.   The stages are universal and identical for all children.  Vygotsky’s analysis is different from that of Piaget.  Vygotsky believed that the higher mental functions were culturally mediated and that meant that learning was context specific.  “Society is the bearer of the cultural heritage without which the development of mind is impossible.” (Cole & Wertsch)  Piaget recognizes the importance of environment on learning but does not assign culture a central role in the sequence from lower to higher mental functions.  No matter the differences, both Vygotsky and Piaget stressed that language acquisition was developmental and that learning should be active.



Implications for education

In play, children become a head taller than their current selves.


     Does Vygotsky have any pedagogical implications in the 21st century?  One of Vygotsky’s main concepts is contained in his idea of the value of constructive play.   He feels that play is of utmost importance to children.  This is not only because it provides pleasure but more so because it is a social activity in which children learn to negotiate meaning and to develop higher cognitive skills.   Vygotsky especially encourages imaginative play, for example  role plays or pretending games.   Through role plays children learn rules of behavior and can try out actions to see whether they are correct or not.  “Every imaginary situation has rules in a concealed form,” (Vygotsky, 1978) and these teach the child valuable real life lessons.  In the early grades children need to have the time and space to play in school in order to develop skills needed to be successful academically such as organization, delay of instant gratification and following rules. (p.99)

     Tied closely to the idea of play is Vygotsky’s concept of the  Zone of Proximal Development.  In play, children project themselves into adult roles and rehearse their future roles.  They discover values and expectations.  Through play, children start to be aware of motivation and attitudes which they see and experience with their older peers or adults.  The cognitive skills are practices through play which uses imagination.  “In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” (p. 129)

     In general terms, in order to create ZPD in the classroom teachers must strive to provide activities which challenge the child and then provide the scaffolding so that the student can eventually move from a dependent situation to an independent action.  This can be done in the classroom by creating situations in which groups of children work together in cooperative groups where those who are able to perform help to mentor those who are not yet ready to figure out the task independently. Many such activities can be found in books on cooperative learning strategies. (Kagan, S.)  Vygotsky stresses the use of real situations and real language which is the trend in immersion classes in which a subject is taught in a foreign or second language. The language is used as the tool to teach the concepts.  Vygotsky’s theories are very much at the root of immersion and whole language programs.

     Another application of Vygotsky’s concepts to language teaching comes in his idea of the importance of writing.    Vygotsky believes that writing, from its earliest forms of line drawings, is a higher mental function.  (1978)  All drawings by children are based on memory rather than actual copying from an object and therefore represent the children's’ thoughts.  Drawing is a non-verbal way of expressing inner speech.  It is symbolic as is writing.  In the earliest school years, children put their thoughts on paper through pictures.  As they learn writing symbols, they change to pictures and words to finally a predominance of words.  “The entire secret of teaching written  language is to prepare and organize this natural transition appropriately.” (p. 116)  As with general language learning, Vygotsky emphasizes that writing should be incorporated into real, necessary and relevant situations for the child to realize that writing is another form of speech.

Language and thought

Study of the whole H2O extinguishes fire....Study of the parts...hydogen burns and oxygen sustains fire.


     Vygotsky’s theory of how language and thought should be studied is summed up in the metaphor of a drop of water.  Water is made up of two elements.  The two elements together can extinguish fire but when the elements are separated both elements sustain fire.  In order to have water the elements must be looked at together.  In the same way,  language and thought are so intimately entwined that one can not be studied without the other.  To study the two separately would not give a true picture of either one.   If language is studied without speech then the inner process becomes biological rather than social.  If speech is studied without thought then it is analyzed in terms of linguistic terminology and loses its communicative properties. Neither one is accurate.

      Tied up in the metaphor of water is also the combination of word meaning and culture.   The meaning of a word can only be known in context.  Speech therefore depends on the needs, interests, experience, exposure and culture of the speaker.  The implication for language teaching is to teach language in context so that the learner develops the experiences and exposure to realize what he/she needs to learn in order to express their thoughts, desires, needs.  Vygotsky’s theories may be out of the early 20th century but they provide the foundation for good language teaching as we enter the 21st century.




Bruner, J. (1986).  Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.  Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Cole, M. & Wertsch, J.  Beyond the Individual-Social Antimony in Discussions of Piaget and    Vygotsky.  Retrieved  April 21, 2002, from

Hunt, M. (1994).  The Story of Psychology.  N.Y.:  Anchor Books.

Kagan, S. (1989).  Cooperative Learning:  Resources for Teachers.  Riverside, Ca:  University of   California.

Schutz, R. Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition.  Retrieved March 14,    2002 from English Made in Brazil:

Schutz, R. Vygotsky and Language Acquisition.  Retrieved March 14, 2002 from English Made in   Brazil:

Singer, D.G. & Revenson, T.  (1996) A Piaget Primer:  How a Child Thinks.  N.Y.:  Plume    Books.

Vygotsky, L., (1978) Mind in Society:  The Development of  Higher Psychological Processes. In    M. Cole, S. Scribner, V. John-Steiner, and E. Souderman. (Eds.)  Cambridge, MA:    Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L., (1986).  Thought and Language.  In A. Kozulin (Ed. and Trans.), Cambridge,    Mass:  MIT Press.

Wink, J. & Putney, L., (2002) A Vision of Vygotsky.  Boston, Mass: Allyn & Bacon.



Priscilla's comments
An excellent paper.  You have selected and integrated an appropriate set of resources.  The paper is well organized, easy to follow and well structured.  I really like the quotes at the beginning of each subheading.  They really set the stage for the content to follow.

I certainly don't have much to add here.  Your applications section is thoughtful and right on.  You have covered Vygotsky's theory well.

I have spent a considerable time thinking about Vygotsky and his basic notion that thought and language are two sides of the same coin--that they dynamically work together to constitute mind.  Now, here is my problem--does that mean all thought.  Is language sufficient for describing thought--it's development, origins, and functions?  My problem is that there are a number of symbolic systems that I believe promote thought--visual systems of representation, musical systems, mathematical systems, dance, etc., etc.  Are these secondary?  Are they also part of the thinking equation?  Unless you think of these systems as a language and generalize from Vygotsky one can be stumped.  Clearly, Vygotsky was talking about spoken language systems and a little about written language systems although in some ways he presumes spoken and written to be the same.  One way out is to substitute symbolization for language and derive all the same notions.  Another is to think that language and thought take on one character; mathematics and thought another.
Howard Gardner has resolved this by stating that one characteristic of all of the intelligences is their 'susceptibility to human symbolization'.  He states that the human ability to use a broad range of symbols 'paves the royal route from raw intelligence to finished culture'.  You might enjoy his final chapters in Frames of Mind.  this is the book that introduced multiple intelligences.  Unfortunately everyone just read those chapters and didn't bother with the last chapters when he talks about how those intelligences add up to serve humans.


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