A Word is the Search for It, part 2: The Work of Inner Speech

Book cover of the 1986 English edition of Lev Vygotsky's "Thought and Language" In Russian the title of Vygotsky’s book is Myshlenie i Rech. This can be translated literally as “Thought and Speech,” but the word rech also connotes “language” and “discourse.” Similarly, the title of Vygotsky’s final chapter is “Myshlenie i Slovo.” One of the most profound words in the Russian language, slovo (“word”) can mean a single word or it can be a synecdoche for discourse, verbal expression, or the processes of language. Such problems with word-meanings are not merely a translator’s headache, according to psychologist Alex Kozulin; they go directly to the heart of Vygotsky’s theoretical concerns (Vygotsky’s Psychology 151-2). In reading Vygotsky’s and Mandelstam’s work, it must be remembered that “word” is not a thing, but a dynamic process. As psychologist A. A. Leontiev expressed it, “A word is the search for it” (qtd. in Zebroski 205). An alternative title for Vygotsky’s book might be “Thinking and Speaking.”

In Thought and Language Vygotsky resisted splitting the meaning of words into semantic and phonetic categories. He favored compound phrases such as “meaningful speech” and “verbal thought” to identify what he considered to be amalgams of functions (212). He explained, “The relation of thought to word is not  a thing but a process, a continual movement back and forth from thought to word and from word to thought” (218).

In the book’s final chapter Vygotsky conceptualized a series of functional planes in which this back and forth movement occurs:

External speech
Inner speech

Vygotsky was a scientist, so he began with what he could observe on the plane of external or communicative speech. His analysis worked from the outermost toward the inner planes, but eventually he concluded that development from thought to language proceeded in the opposite direction.

The inward aspects of speech had been “as unknown to science as the other side of the moon” when Vygotsky began his studies (255). To probe inner processes, he turned to a type of behavior displayed in young children which the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget termed “egocentric speech.” Vygotsky brought Piaget’s work to the attention of Soviet psychology in 1932 when he wrote an introduction for the Russian translation of Piaget’s The Language and Thought of the Child. Responding to Piaget’s theories became an impetus for writing Thought and Language (Kozulin, Vygotsky’s Psychology 176).

According to Piaget, a child uses egocentric speech without expectation of a response from others. This speech typically accompanies play and includes comments on the child’s thoughts and actions. It tends to be syntactically undifferentiated and is most common in children between the ages of three and five. Piaget considered egocentric speech to be a transitory, throw-away behavior, merely a verbal accompaniment to silent thought. In his view, it was not social and did not contribute to a child’s subsequent development of logical thinking (Kozulin, Vygotsky’s Psychology 174).

Vygotsky thought otherwise. He considered egocentric speech to be a rich transitional stage that led directly to the development of mature speech-for-others (external speech) and internalized speech-for-oneself (inner speech). Vygotsky devised a series of elegant experiments, widely replicated since the 1930s, to demonstrate how egocentric speech is involved in real problem-solving. In one experiment, a child’s play activity, such as drawing, was impeded by an external obstacle. Egocentric speech increased as the child confronted the obstacle. Vygotsky concluded that such obstacles stimulated the child to “think aloud” (Kozulin, Vygotsky’s Psychology 175).

Soviet psychologist Lev VygotskyVygotsky (right) also theorized that egocentric speech remains connected to social communication because the child assumes that he or she is actually understood by others. In another series of experiments, Vygotsky placed the child in situations which undermined the illusion of understanding — playing in a room with children who were deaf, or with others removed at a great distance. Egocentric speech decreased in these situations. He concluded that egocentric speech requires the presumption of understanding by others. Subsequent research in the 1970s found that children produced more egocentric speech in the presence of adults whom they perceived as willing to help them (Kozulin, Vygotsky’s Psychology 175).

It should be noted here that deaf children were not limited to instrumental roles in Vygotsky’s experimental designs. Another of his research interests concerned the unique ways in which development proceeded for deaf and blind children. He was a founder of Moscow’s Institute of Defectology in 1924. Defectology was then the Soviet appellation for what is now known as special education. Despite the politically unpalatable sound of the term in English, Vygotsky’s approach to defectology emphasized the social consequences of disabilities, rather than an individual’s defects. As early as 1925, he asserted, “Blindness or deafness, as a psychological fact, is not at all a misfortune, but, as a social fact, it becomes such” (“Principles” 20). According to neurologist Oliver Sachs, “Vygotsky stressed the intactness rather than the deficits” of disabled children (xvii). He was one of the first psychologists to recognize the linguistic integrity of sign languages.

Egocentric speech tends to fade away in children beyond the age of seven, according to Vygotsky, but it does not fade completely. It becomes internalized as inner speech, or speech-for-oneself. By studying egocentric speech as it faded, or provoking its production under experimental conditions, Vygotsky used it as a window into the elusive processes of inner speech. Based on his observations, Vygotsky concluded in Thought and Language that inner speech followed its own “syntax of word meanings” (222). He characterized this syntax as abbreviated, predicated, and saturated with sense. Inner speech abbreviates word-meanings by dropping the subject of sentences while preserving the predicates. A single word becomes saturated with meaning in inner speech. “To unfold it into overt speech,” Vygotsky explained, “one would need a multitude of words” (243). Moving from inner speech to external speech is not simply the vocalization of silent speech. It requires the transformation of abbreviated, predicated forms into other, more syntactically deployed forms (248).

Vygotsky considered writing to be a form of speech because it involved processes connecting thought to language. While inner speech is the most condensed type of speech, writing is the most elaborate. It uses the most words to convey a meaning to an absent reader, because only words are available to it. Gesture, tone, and context are not available to help convey meaning (242). Complicated forms, in turn, require complex processes such as writing multiple drafts. “The evolution from the draft to the final copy reflects our mental process,” Vygotsky wrote in a sentence that became a hook for contemporary teachers of writing (242-43). He considered the work of inner speech to be a kind of mental draft for both written and oral speech, because planning occurs even when a draft is not  written (243).

Inner speech is not the antecedent of external speech, nor is it merely the reproduction of external speech in memory. In differentiating them, Vygotsky insisted that inner and external speech operate in conjunction. As external speech is the materialization of thought into words, inner speech is the sublimation of words into thought (226). “In external speech thought is embodied in words; in inner speech words die as they bring forth thought,” Vygotsky wrote (248). Evoking the image of Mandelstam’s blind swallow, he described inner speech as “a dynamic, shifting, unstable thing, fluttering between word and thought” (249).

A chance encounter with Osip Mandelstam on the streets of Voronezh, the provincial city where he was exiled in 1934-36, would have revealed some of the behaviors Vygotsky observed in his experiments. Mandelstam composed verse in the workshop of inner speech. The best indication that he actually was writing was the silent movement of his lips as he walked about. Even with his longer prose works, he seldom wrote directly on paper. Mandelstam evinced a blithe indifference to written texts not uncommon among Russians in the Stalin era. Nadezhda Yakovlevna would write down his daily output of words at the end of the walk. He trusted her, Akhmatova, and the secret police to keep track of his manuscripts. Nadezhda Yakovlevna knew Mandelstam’s work intimately, and her memoirs are filled with insight about his writing process. She evidently read Vygotsky’s book in the 1960s, for she mentions it (mistakenly reversing the  title as Language and Thought) in her sole reference to the psychologist. In Hope Against Hope she quotes “The Swallow” and describes Mandelstam’s composition process in terms that parallel Vygotsky’s concept of inner speech:

The process of composing verse also involves the recollection of something that has never before been said, and the search for lost words is an attempt to remember what is still to be brought into being (“I have forgotten the word I wished to say, like a blind swallow it will return to the abode of shadows.” ) This requires great concentration, till whatever has been forgotten suddenly flashes into the mind. In the first stage the lips move soundlessly, then they begin to whisper and at last the inner music resolves itself into units of meaning: the recollection is developed like the image on a photographic plate. (187)

Read the complete essay: A Word is the Search for It

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