Implications of One Analogy: Lev Vygotskij on Foreign Language Teaching and Learning

Serafima Gettys, Stanford University

The purpose of this presentation is to interest foreign language teachers in Vygotskij’s theory of language and thought by showing it relevance to the today’s concerns of foreign language education.

Without a doubt some of the aspects of Vygotskij’s socio-cultural theory successfully entered in recent discourse on foreign language. Such concepts as the zone of proximal development, collaborative learning, learner-centered classroom, pair and group work, role-plays, etc. are effectively employed in teaching. In the meantime, Vygotskij’s insights into the nature of thought-language interdependence, i.e., Vygotskij’s original and innovative psycholinguistics, which seems to be especially pertinent to the problems of foreign language teaching, are, in fact, overlooked by the field. The paper is an attempt to fill this gap.

Although the issue of second language acquisition never appeared in Vygotskij’s works as an object of special exploration, in his “Development of Scientific Concepts in Childhood,” in elucidating the differences and similarities between the child’s spontaneous concepts and scientific concepts, Vygotskij uses L2 learning as a way of creating a brilliant analogy: he draws a vivid comparison between the acquisition of spontaneous and scientific concepts, on the one hand, with the acquisition of the mother tongue and the foreign language, on the other hand. The way this analogy is developed enables one to draw some conclusions about Vygotskij’s views on how foreign languages are learned and how they should be taught.

Seen out of the context of the Vygotskij’s theory of language and thought, some of his views might seem somewhat outdated and presenting only historical interest today. However, when placed in the context of his theory in all its entirety, his views on this matter acquire a new significance.

An attempt will be made to identify the underlying causes of the field’s neglect of Vygotskij’s psycholingustics and its reluctance to accept his views on the issue of language and thought. One of such reasons is existence of unnecessary dichotomy between the cognitive conception and the communicative conception of language and thought and the resulting dominant position of the latter in the field of foreign language education. A brief analysis of both conceptions will follow. In the course of this analysis the presenter will attempt to show that both conceptions can be reconciled. Bringing together both conceptions will allow investigators in the field to discover new possibilities, which were previously discarded due to this absolute, although unnecessary, dichotomy. For the foreign language education field, resolving such dichotomy may signify an important breakthrough and departure from the views that have already become traditional because of their narrow focus on skill acquisition.

The concluding part of the presentation will show that some of Vygotskij’s ideas have enormous instructional implications and applications.