Which came first, the language or the concept?  

Vivian Cook    Children's Spelling   Language and Thinking     Multi-competence

  Multiracial School 1, 2, 1972, 21-24 

Teachers of immigrant children in primary schools seem to be getting more and more worried by the relationship between the teaching of language and the teaching of concepts. Should they teach language in isolation from conceptual development ? Should they teach language first and let the concepts come out of the language ? Or should they always combine them together and not try to give them separate attention ? A familiar example is that of comparison'. Here there is a concept that seems strongly linked to particular syntactic structures. The teacher could decide to concentrate on the concept and make the child arrange, say, objects of different sizes in order. Or he could emphasise the syntactic structure and practice sentences such as 'This pencil is longer than that one' or 'My brother is bigger than yours'. Or he could try to teach both concept and language in conjunction. This brief article surveys some of the theories that have dealt with this issue and tries to provide some evidence to help the teacher with this decision. In fact, though this problem is most acute for the teacher of immigrants, it faces most primary teachers in one form or another.  

From the point of view of the psychologist, Piaget is quite definite about the relationship of language to concept formation. He believes that there is no need for language to precede the acquisition of concepts. Before the child learns to speak, he is already using symbolic thought in which one object stands for another. A child that opens and shuts its mouth while working out how to open a matchbox is representing one action by another even if he cannot speak. Language is only one of the symptoms of this level of development, not the cause. Some use of symbols is found before speech occurs, and some use of non-language symbols co-exists with speech. Language is only part of the child's development and does not play a crucial role. Its only major difference from other symbolic systems is that it is not personal and idiosyncratic but is shared with other speakers of the language. The proof of the minor role of language comes from studies of deaf and blind children. Their conceptual development is delayed by between one and four years. Yet in the end they acquire more or less the same concepts as the normal child in spite of their language handicap. So language only greases the wheels, it does not drive them. Piaget's advice for the teacher seems to be that language must not be treated in isolation but as part of the general development of the child; the teacher must not expect to influence conceptual development very greatly through language teaching1.

From the point of view of the linguist, Noam Chomsky is far from convinced that language is simply part of the growth of symbolic thought. In a recent lecture he dismissed this with the remark that ‘Since only the vaguest of suggestions have been offered, it is impossible at present to evaluate these proposals.' Most of these studying child language at the moment agree with him that the dependence of language acquisition on more general learning processes is not proven. Many aspects of language development appear to have no parallels in other areas of development. Syntactic structure has peculiarities of its own. For instance, early in the development of speech the child forms sentences by combining two different types of words, usually known as 'pivot' and 'open'. Examples of this are sentences such as 'Shoe there', 'Cup broke', and 'See Mummy'. Why he should do this and how this leads on to more complicated structures is as yet uncertain. Yet this stage is found in a variety of languages and may perhaps occur in all human languages. As a developmental stage it seems unique to language. The linguist's advice to the teacher is then to be wary of subordinating language to concept as this will not teach those aspects of language that are unique2.  

Though there are differences between these two approaches, there are also similarities. They both recognise that language acquisition is not the same thing as the development of concepts. They differ over the degree of independence they grant to language. Piaget sees language as essentially no different from other uses of symbolic thought. Chomsky sees language as having its own specific qualities not shared by other aspects of development. The difference between concept and language has been shown in several experiments. Children, for instance, are able to discriminate spatial relations at an earlier age than they can understand the language that describes these relations. If they are given pictures showing a circle and a line with the line in different positions to the circle, they can match a picture to its duplicate before they can choose the right picture in response to an order such as 'Show me the picture with the circle below the line.'3 Thus concept precedes language. Even when the concept is known, they cannot, use the language to describe it, and the syntax of the sentence may confuse them. Children who have to make coloured blocks fit the sentence 'The blue block is in front of the red block' find it much easier if they have to move the blue block (the subject of the sentence) rather than the red block (the object) although the spatial relationship is the same in both cases.4

Research that deals specifically with the links between language and concept is rather sparse. The most interesting work yet to appear in print is that carried out by Hermina Sinclair-de-Zwart at Geneva. She simply tested the child to see if it possessed a particular concept and then made him use language in a task related to the concept. By combining the two sets of results she found that children at a particular stage did prefer certain types of syntactic structure to others. However, their preferences were not those that a linguist might predict. For instance, a child who has not yet mastered the conservation of liquid will describe a short thin pencil and a long fat one in the following terms: 'That one is big and that one is little, that one is a bit big and that one is small'. A six-year-old who knows the conservation of liquids will say in the same situation 'That one is fatter and smaller, that one is thin and small.' The main difference, apart from the comparatives, is the number of clauses. The four-year-old uses four clauses to get the same effect as the six-year-old with two. There seems no logical reason why conservation should be linked to the number of clauses and yet this was found in the speech of both French and English speaking children. While there is a relation between language and concept, it is by no means direct and it cannot be predicted in advance. Sinclair-de-Zwart also tried explicitly to affect concepts through language, though here her results are only based on French, If a child could not order rods in rows by increasing size, she gave him practice in the syntactic structures of comparison. Later she tested the child again to see ifhe had acquired the concept. She found a marked improvement in only a few cases. Teaching the syntactic structures that seemed appropriate to particular concepts rarely seemed to help the child to develop from one conceptual stage to another.

This brief survey has shown how complex the issue of language and concept is. Like most issues in language teaching, neither the psychologist nor the linguist have as yet any final solutions to offer. A recent question in the R.S.A. examination said 'Sorting, ordering, and cause and effect are each aspects of conceptualisation. Show how you would use specific learning activities to develop anyone of these in second language learners, so that the related language is learnt actively and exercised along with the development of the concept. ...' Every teacher has to answer this question out of his own experience. There is not enough information to give a more objective answer as yet. It is dangerous to presuppose that language and concept can be developed simultaneously. It is not known which part of the language is linked to a particular concept and which parts of language are unique. The most crying need is to discover the language characteristics of different stages of conceptual development; we cannot indefinitely rely on our own vague hunches. When we have definite information we can be more certain of giving the pupil language suitable for his own level and we can think more seriously of developing language hand in hand with concept.


1. Useful accounts of Piaget's views on language can be found in:Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder, The Psychology of the Child (London, 1969) . Hermina Sinclair-de-Zwart, 'Developmental Psycholinguistics', in David Elkind and John H. Flavell (ed.) Studies in Cognitive Development (New York, 1969).  

2. The text of Chomsky's lecture can be found in:
N. Chomsky, 'Interpreting the World', Cambridge Review, Vol. 92, No.2200 (29 January, 1971).
A useful introduction to current work on child language is:
David McNeill, The Acquisition of Language: The Study of Developmental Psycholinguistics (New York, 1970).

3. Doreen Asso and Maria Wyke, 'Visual discrimination and verbal comprehension of spatial relations by young children,' British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 61 (1970).

 4. Janellen Huttenlocher and Susan Strauss, 'Comprehension and a Statements' Relation to the Situation it Describes', Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, Vol. 7 (1968).

5. H. Sinclair-de-Zwart, Acquisition du langage et developpement de la pensée, (Paris, 1967).