Which came first, the language or the concept?
Cook Children's Spelling Language and Thinking Multi-competence
Multiracial School 1, 2, 1972,
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.
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.
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
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
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).
Doreen Asso and Maria Wyke, 'Visual discrimination and verbal comprehension of
spatial relations by young children,' British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 61
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).