When society is to blame

Language in Cognitive Development
October 16, 1998

Within the field of social psychology, the influence from culture and social interaction has long been studied as a means of understanding the relationship between the self, the mind and the world. However, social psychological research has often neglected the importance of the mind in this relationship. In contrast, cognitive psychology has tended to be somewhat dismissive of socio-cultural influences. Language in Cognitive Development attempts to bridge the gap between social and cognitive psychology, in which the child's developing language is seen as the main vehicle of enculturation and change. Katherine Nelson sets out to attack all developmental theories that are based on the independence of language from cognition, including that of the great Swiss epistemologist Piaget.

The book begins by setting the foundations of a framework for examining the importance of the social environment in the development of the language that children acquire. Nelson argues against two prevailing views: either that the infant's mind is a blank slate on which environmental information is written, or the popular view that infants are born already possessing naive theories about the natural world.

For Nelson, it is through language, which acts as a medium of communication and representation, that the child gains knowledge of the shared socio-cultural meanings.

According to Nelson, the primary use of language is pragmatic, not symbolic. She suggests that the meaning of words is acquired directly via social discourse rather than constrained by cognitive biases. Thus, it is when the child starts to represent her world linguistically that "culture enters the mind''.

Several aspects of Nelson's position are reminiscent of the theory of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. But both fail to account for the internal mechanisms that allow conceptual and pragmatic abilities to develop synergistically.

Nelson takes a similar stance on categorisation. She argues that the taxonomic hierarchies that children abide by when faced with cognitive tasks are a function of their exposure to their linguistic and cultural community.

The crux of her argument is that although the general taxonomies that people construct have been shown to be stable across cultures, this does not mean that they are biologically given and in any particular culture what is included in a category may very because of differences between languages.

Although this book challenges traditional notions of the way in which the social world influences cognitive development and argues for more of a balance between the individual and the social, Nelson's claims would be more convincing if she spelt out the mechanisms that allow such dynamic processes to take place. It is often clear how the "content" of social-cultural influences could enter the child's mind, but it remains unclear what processes make this possible. Nonetheless, this book is thought-provoking and will be of interest to anyone seeking to explore contextual effects on cognitive development.

Janine Spencer is lecturer in cognition and cognitive development, London Guildhall University.

Language in Cognitive Development

Author - Katherine Nelson
ISBN - 0 521 55123 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00

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