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Backer - Piaget's Theory on Language

Backer - Piaget's Theory on Language

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07/02/2013

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EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER 
22
Piaget’s Early Theory of the Role of Languagein Intellectual Development:A Commenton DeVries’s Account of Piaget’s Social Theory
by Joe Becker and Maria Varelas
Piaget saw social interaction as the key to how we overcome theinstability of the symbols we each individually construct. In theessay cited, Piaget (1945/1995a) does write about the fluctuationof the symbolism of individual images. However, Piaget alsoclearly considers that language plays a crucial role in overcomingthis fluctuation: This point is missing from DeVries’s account.Here is the relevant passage from Piaget’s essay:
Complete reversibility presupposes symbolism, because it is only by reference to the possible evocation of absent objects that the as-similation of things to action schemes and the accommodation of action schemes to things reach permanent equilibrium and thusconstitute a reversible mechanism. The symbolism of individualimages fluctuates far too much to lead to this result.
Language is therefore necessary,
and thus we come back to social factors. (Piaget,1945/1995a, p.154, emphasis added)
 Again, we find that Piaget tied the role of social interaction to theimportance of language.That these references of Piaget to the role of language in intel-lectual development are by no means marginal is apparent froma consideration of 
Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood 
(Piaget, 1945/1962a), published in the same period. This book isconsidered by some to be significant because it develops Piaget’sideas on pretend play. However, originally titled
La Formationdu Symbole Chez L’Enfant,
the book presents the theory Piagetthen held of the role of language in the development of concep-tual and logical understandings. This theory provides an accountof two developments of the semiotic function. The first is a de-velopment from the absence of representation to the generationof mental images that arise from perception and action, whichPiaget considered to be strongly tied to experiential knowing.The second is a development from such mental images to arbi-trary conventional signs, which Piaget considered to be less di-rectly tied to experiential knowing. In this theory, the signifier isat first an internal image derived from perceptions and actionsand resulting from extended accommodation. At this point,thought is still particular and individual. The development fromthe first signifiers to signifiers that support the development of log-ical thought arises from the “intervention of language.” The fol-lowing passages (Piaget, 1945/1962a) illustrate this perspective:
 We have to attempt to determine the connection between the im-itative image, ludic symbolism and representative intelligence, i.e.,between cognitive representation and the representation of imita-tion and play. This very complex problem is still further compli-
In the March 1997
Educational Researcher 
, Rheta DeVries presenteda thought-provoking account of the social factors in Piaget’s con-ceptualization of intellectual development, primarily in his earlyworks. However, DeVries ignored the fact that in these early writ-ings Piaget made language an integral part of his ideas on intellectualdevelopment. DeVries’s elision is unfortunate for two reasons. First,it raises an issue of validity: Are we justified in simply discarding thelinguistic element of these writings? Second, DeVries missed the op-portunity to show how Piaget’s early ideas on the role of languagemight be relevant to contemporary interest in socio-
cultural 
aspectsof development.
In an article in
Educational Researcher 
DeVries (1997) sought tomake the social aspect of Piaget’s ideas on intellectual developmentmore widely known. Especially in work he published in the 1920’sthrough the 1940’s, Piaget emphasized the importance of social in-teraction to intellectual development, and DeVries drew heavily on these writings. However, DeVries did not address a major as-pect of how Piaget considered social factors in this period: Refer-ence to the very sources cited by DeVries indicates that, during theabove-mentioned period, Piaget linked the role of social interac-tion in intellectual development to the role of language. As a first example, DeVries (1997, p. 7) cites the following re-mark by Piaget (1950/1995b, p. 94): “The isolated individual would never be capable of complete conservation and reversibil-ity.” Conservation and reversibility are fundamental constructsin Piaget’s conception of logical thought. Therefore, the quota-tion supports DeVries’s argument that according to Piaget thedevelopment of logical thought is dependent on social inter-action. However, reference to DeVries’s source shows that Piagetcompleted the sentence as follows: “and it is the exigencies of rec-iprocity which allow this double conquest,
through the intermedi-ary of a common language and a common scale of definitions 
” (p. 94,emphasis added). Thus, Piaget related the importance of socialinteraction for intellectual development to the role of language. As a second example, DeVries writes that Piaget “noted thatthe symbolism of individual images fluctuates too much to ac-count for conservation, reversibility, and equilibrium leading tothe necessity of the social factor” (p. 13). DeVries’s point is that
Educational Researcher, Vol. 30, No. 6, pp. 22–23

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