Psychology Classics


The Language and Thought of the Child


Jean Piaget

In the same way that Alfred Kinsey spent years collecting specimens of and writing about the gall wasp before he launched himself on the study of human sexuality, Jean Piaget was a master of natural-world observation before he turned his mind to human matters. As a child and teenager the wandered the hills, streams and mountains of western Switzerland collecting snails, and later wrote his Doctor's thesis on the mollusks of the Valais mountains.

What he learned in these years – to observe first and classify later - set him up well for examining the subject of child thought, which had attracted plenty of theories but not a great deal solid scientific observation of actual children. Entering the field, his main wish was that his conclusions be drawn from the facts, however difficult or paradoxical they seemed. Adding to his methodical skills was – for a scientist – an unusually good grasp of philosophy. Child psychology was a tangle epistemological questions, yet he decided to focus on very down to earth issues such as 'Why does a child talk, and who is she talking to?' and 'Why does she ask so many questions?'.

If there were answers, he knew they could benefit teachers greatly, and it was for them mainly that he wrote The Language and Thought of the Child. As Edouard Claparede notes in his preface, most explorers of the child mind had focused on a quantitative nature of child psychology – it was thought that children are how they are because they have less of the mental abilities of the adult and commit more errors. But Piaget believed that it was not a matter of children having less or more of something – they are fundamentally different in the way they think. Communication problems exist between adults and children not because of gaps in information, but due to the quite different ways each have of seeing themselves within their worlds.

Why a child talks

In the opening pages, Piaget asks what he admits is a strange question: “What are the needs which a child tends to satisfy when he talks?” Any sane person would say that the purpose of language is to communicate with others, but if this was the case, he wondered, why did children talk when there was no one around, and why did even adults talk to themselves, whether internally or muttering aloud? It was clear that language could not be reduced to the one function of simply communicating thought.

Piaget conducted his research at the Rousseau Institute in Geneva, opened in 1912 for the study of the child and teacher training. There he observed children of four and six, taking down everything they said while they worked and played, and the book includes transcripts of their 'conversations'.

What Piaget quickly discovered – and what every parent could confirm – is that when children speak, a lot of the time they are not talking to anyone in particular. They are thinking aloud. He identified two types of speech, egocentric and socialized. Within the egocentric type were three patterns:

  • Repetition – speech not directed to people, the saying of words for the simple pleasure of it.
  • Monologue – whole commentaries which follow the child's actions or play.
  • Collective monologue – when children are talking apparently together, yet are not really taking account of what the others are saying. (A room of ten children seated at different tables may be noisy with talk, but in fact are all really talking to themselves.)

He noted that until a certain age (seven, he thought), a child has no 'verbal continence', but must say anything that comes into his head. A kindergarten or nursery, he wrote, “is a society in which, strictly speaking, individual and social life are not differentiated”. Because the child believes themselves to be the center of the universe, there is no need for the idea of privacy or witholding views in sensitivity to others. The adult, in contrast, because of his comparative lack of egocentricity, has adapted to a fully socialized speech pattern in which many things are left unsaid. Only madmen and children, as it were, say whatever they think, because only they really matter. It was for this reason that a child is able to talk all the time in the presence of his friends, but never be able to see things from their point of view. 

Part of the reason for the egocentricity of the child is that a significant part of their language involves gesture, movements and sounds. As these are not words, they cannot express everything, so the child must remain partly a prisoner of their own minds. We can understand this when we appreciate that the greater an adult's mastery of language, the more likely he or she will be able to understand, or at least be aware of, the views of others. Language, in fact, takes a person beyond themselves, which is why human culture puts such stress on teaching it to children - it enables them to eventually move out of egocentric thinking.

Different thinking, different worlds

Piaget borrowed a distinction from psychoanalysis about two types of thought:

  • Directed or intelligent thought is that which has an aim, adapts that aim to reality, and can communicate it in language. This thinking is based on experience and logic.
  • Undirected or autistic thought involves aims which are not conscious and not adapted to reality, based on satisfaction of desires rather than establishing truth. The language of this sort of thinking is images, myths and symbols.

For the directed mind, water has certain properties and obeys certain laws. It is conceived of conceptually as well as materially. To the autistic mind, water is only relevant in relation to desires or needs: it is something that can be drunk or seen or enjoyed

These distinctions helped Piaget appreciate the development of the child's thought up to the age of 11. From 3-7 the child was largely egocentric and had elements of autistic thought, but from 7 to 11 egocentric logic made way for perceptual intelligence.

Piaget set up experiments in which children were asked to relate a story they had been told or to explain back something, such as the working of a tap, that had been shown to them. Before they were 7, children did not really care if the people they were relating to understood the story or the mechanism. They can describe, but not analyze. But from 7-8 onwards, children do not assume that another person will know what they mean and attempt to give a faithful account of something – to be objective. Until then, a child’s egocentrism does not allow them to be objective. What they can’t explain or don't know they make up. But at 7-8 the child knows what it means to give a correct rendering of the truth – that is, the difference between invention and reality.

Piaget noticed that children think in terms of 'schemas', which allow them to focus on the whole of a message without having to make sense of every detail. When they hear something they do not understand, children do not try to analyze the sentence structure or words, but try to grasp or create an overall meaning. He noted that the trend in mental development is always from the syncretic to the analytical – to see the whole first, before gaining the ability to break things down into parts or categorize. Prior to ages 7 or 8, the child's mind is largely syncretic, but later develops powers of analysis which mark the shift from the juvenile to the adult mind.

Child logic

Piaget wondered: Why do children, particularly those under 7, fantasize and dream and use their imagination so much?

He observed that because they do not engage in deductive or analytical thought, there is no reason to make a firm demarcation between 'the real' and 'the not real'. As their minds do not work in terms of causality and evidence, everything seems possible.

When a child asks, 'What would happen if I were an angel?', to an adult the question is not worth pursuing because we know it can't be real. But for a child, anything is not only possible, it is explainable, since no objective logic is required. To satisfy their mind, all that is required is a motivation e.g. The ball wanted to roll down the hill, so it did. At age 6, a boy might feel that a river flows down a hill because it wants to. A year later, he will explain it in terms of 'water always flows downhill, so that is why the river is flowing down this hill here'.

'The world of make believe' as we so superiorly tag it, has to the younger child a feel of cold, hard reality, because within it everything makes sense according to its own intentions and motivations. In fact, as Piaget wryly observes, the child's world seems to work so well that, according to its own understanding, logic is not required to support it.

Why do many young children incessantly ask 'Why?' Because they want to know the intention of everyone and everything, even if it is inanimate, not realizing that only some things have intentions. Later, when the child can appreciate that most things are caused rather than intended, her questions become about causality. The time of a child's life before she understands cause and effect – precausality – coincides with the time of egocentrism.

Adults often find it difficult to understand children because they have forgotten that the child exists in a completely different mind in which logic plays no role. You cannot make a child think in the same way as you before they are certain age. At each age, a child gains a certain equilibrium in relation to their environment. That is, the way they think and perceive at age 5 perfectly explains their world. But that way does not do when they are 8. Just as humans grow physically and adjust to their environment according to their bodies, so they adjust intellectually. As Piaget puts it, “need creates consciousness”.

* * *

In later writings, Piaget explored the final stage of mental development, beginning at age 11 or 12. The teenager's ability to reason, think abstractly, make judgments and consider future possibilities made them essentially the same as an adult. From this point on it was a matter of increases in ability rather qualitative changes.

Final comments

Despite some questions about the precise timings, Piaget's stages of child development have largely stood the test of time, and his impact on pre-school and school education has been great.

Yet Piaget never considered himself a child psychologist, and was more accurately a scientist focused on theories of knowledge. His observation of children led to broader theories on communication and cognition, because what he learned about the child's mind threw the adult's into clearer view. For instance, it was not only children who used schemas to make sense of the world – we adults also have to accommodate and assimilate new information by conforming it to what we know already.

Piaget invented the field of 'genetic epistemology', which means how theories of knowledge evolve or change in relation to new information. Given that the construction of knowledge is such a human, psychological endeavor, it made it all the more important to be rigorously objective about the admission of new facts. For Piaget, a person's mind is a relatively arbitrary creation, formed in such a way that reality could be explained according to that person's own model of the world. In education, he believed, you had to take account of these models rather than simply shoving facts down a person's throat, otherwise information would not be assimilated. Such a method of education resulted in dull conformists who were uncomfortable with change, and Piaget was ahead of his time in suggesting that we should educate people to be innovative and inventive thinkers who were both aware of the subjectivity of their own minds, yet mature enough to accommodate new facts. His initial experiments observing the language and thought of the child, therefore, led to great insights into how as adults we process knowledge and create new understanding.



Source: 50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do. Insight and inspiration from 50 key books (Nicholas Brealey, London & Boston), Tom Butler-Bowdon.

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50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do: Insight and Inspiration from 50 Key Books

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Jean Piaget

Born in 1896 in Neuchatel, western Switzerland, Piaget was the son of a professor of medieval literature at the local university. His strong interest in biology resulted in the publication of several scientific articles before he had even left school, and in 1917 he published a philosophical novel, Recherché.

After gaining his Doctor’s degree, Piaget began studying child linguistic development, and in 1921 he became director of the Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Geneva. From 1925-29 he was professor of psychology, sociology and the philosophy of science at the University of Neuchatel, then returned to the University of Geneva to be its professor of scientific thought for the next decade. He simultaneously held posts with the Swiss school education authorities. In 1952 Piaget became professor of genetic psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris, and until his death in 1980 directed the International Center for Genetic Epistemology in Geneva.

Key books include The Child’s Conception of the World; The Moral Judgement of the Child; The Origins of Intelligence in Children; Biology of Knowledge; and The Grasp of Consciousness. ©2014 All rights reserved.