I have often seen Jean Piaget cited by education and child development theorists but until now have never read any of his work. I’m now reading “The Language and Thought of the Child” (3rd Ed 1959).
At the first chapter, I was fascinated, not so much by any conclusions that he came to, as by the question he was asking. He is questioning the very function of language in children – why they talk. His method of study is to meticulously observe two 6 year olds, to record every utterance and to catalog it as having a particular type of purpose (which may or may not have anything to do with communicating with others).
He talks a little about speech magic: the way that words may evoke an imagined sensation that is independent of any accompanying event to bring some kind of pleasure or other affect in their own right. He cites Mme Spielrein’s endeavour to demonstrate that the near universal baby word ‘mama’ is an extension of suckling and so it’s utterance brings comfort apart from any response it evokes from others.
I often watch little Monster say mamamama slowly and repeatedly. She is not talking to me (I am generally called mammy/ mummy/ mommy now), what she is doing is making bubbles. You don’t need to make the noise to make a bubble and she doesn’t watch herself doing it in the mirror so she is using the word purely for kinisthetic pleasure. This is egocentric use of speech – it is purely for her own ends and requires no interaction from anyone else.
Piaget believes that this egocentrism comes from an inability to decentre. As far as I can make it this means that the young child is unable to put herself in the perspective of another and adapt her speech or actions to the needs of her companions. He seems to think that this egocentrism is total at birth and dominates the childs thought and action until the age of 7 when socialised thought begins to dominate. This is a sliding scale and there are various developmental stages in between with collaborative play beginning around age 4.
Despite this, I have already watched Monster engaging in collaborative play at only 19 months. This week we had two examples.
In the first instance she was playing in the room with her friend Fraggle (3 weeks younger). Fraggle climbed onto the brick trolley/ walker, held onto the handle and wobbled back and forth as if trying to make the trolley move. Monster watched what she was doing and began to push the trolley forward with Fraggle in it, both of them laughing. When they got close to the desk she slowed down and stopped before they hit it (normally she would just barge the trolley right into the desk). When she tried unsuccesfully to shuffle the trolley round (a little difficult when there’s a body in it), I suggested she pull it backwards which she did until Fraggle started to climb out and she stopped pulling to allow her to do so. There was no verbal communication involved in this but clearly Monster was picking up on cues for her game play and paying attention to the situation and surroundings to make sure no one got hurt.
The second example was when she was watching little Oreo (about a year younger). Oreo can’t crawl yet but she is beginning to experiment with movement. Her dad placed a toy out of reach and she was lunging repeatedly towards it but not making any particular progress. Monster watched her failed attempts to retrieve the toy and picked it up, placed it closer so she could reach and said ‘There you go’. Clearly she has missed the point of the exercise (as decided by the adult) but she has responded to the need that Oreo was expressing and has acted to resolve her problem.
There is little language involved in these scenarios but I am confident that there was socialised/ collaborative thought going on.
I think that maybe Piaget was focusing too heavily with language and equating it with thought. He places great emphasis on the quantity of egocentric speech or monologue: when children chatter as they play but to no one in particular and with no need for a response – he believes they are simply verbalising their thoughts and that they are unable to keep these thoughts to themselves. As children become more socialised, they keep more of their thoughts to themselves and their use of language becomes limited to what they feel other people need to hear.
I watch Monster thinking a lot – I can see the metaphorical cogs turning as she works out how to solve a problem: the best climbing route to get the pens off the desk, how to undo a shoe lace or to put the lego bricks together so they stick, or to fit one object inside another. There is a look of utter concentration and no sound at all. She has some language that she could use in these situations and if she decides she wants help then she will use the language but there is no monologue going on, the words only happen when she needs someone else to intercede. Either (which is quite likely) her thinking is not verbal yet, or she does not feel any need to verbalise her thoughts unless she needs to communicate, or both. It seems unlikely that as her lexicon increases and she becomes more able to think in English that she will forget how to think in silence.
So I think Piaget is wrong about the purpose of the monologue as well as being wrong about the egocentrism of very young children. I am not sure what the purpose of the monologue is, maybe it ties into the speech magic I mentioned earlier, but I am sure that very young children think and demonstrate socialised thinking independently of their language development.