Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Reading :: Speech and the Development of Mental Processes in the Child

Speech and the Development of Mental Processes in the Child
By A.R. Luria and F. Ia. Yudovich

I've been trying to catch up with Luria's work lately, especially his early work on behavior (via cultural-historical psychology) rather than his later work in neuropsychology. This book, which was originally published in the USSR in 1956 and in the West in 1959, describes some of this early work. Here, Luria recounts one of his twin studies from the 1930s—although I don't think Luria clearly situates the date of the study. (Recall that psychologists in the USSR kept their heads down during the Stalin years and published their major works after Stalin's death in 1953.)

My version, which is a 1971 reprint, has an admiring introduction by James Britton. Britton economically discusses the principles of cultural-historical psychology; he does not actually cite Vygotsky's Thought and Language, which was published in an abbreviated form in 1963, but this introduction could have just as easily been an introduction to that book.

Luria's book itself also does a nice job of explaining cultural-historical psychology, citing Vygotsky liberally as a central influence. Luria outlines three principles of Soviet materialist psychology:

  • Reject any approach to mental activity that postulates "unanalysable 'abilities' which are innate in the organization of the brain" (p.21). Luria cites Sechenov and Pavlov for support and points to Lenin's notion of reflection.
  • Introduce the "role of development into study of the formation of mental processes" (p.21). Luria again cites Sechenov and reflex theory, then adds: "Only a clear understanding that, at each particular stage of development, concrete forms of activity present the organism with new problems, new demands, which necessitate the development of new forms of reflex action, only such a conception can ensure the development of scientific research into the basic laws governing the formation of complex aspects of human mental activity" (pp.21-22). He adds: "This is the direction taken by Soviet psychological research" (p.22). Notice that "concrete forms of activity" is not necessarily a focus of Soviet psychology in general, but does neatly summarize the focus of cultural-historical psychology.
  • Study the "child's mental activity as the outcome of his life in certain determined social circumstances" (p.22). He adds that animals develop individual experience, but "with the transition to man the basic form of mental development became acquisition of the experiences of other people through joint practice and speech" (p.22). (cf. Vygotsky and Luria.) Indeed, language "incorporates the experience of generations or, more broadly speaking, of mankind" (p.22). 
Thus "Study of the child's mental processes as the product of his intercommunication with the environment, as the acquisition of common experiences transmitted by speech, has, therefore, become the most important principle of Soviet psychology which informs all research" (p.22).

Luria goes on that argue that language "locks a complex system of connections in the child's cortex and becomes a tremendous tool, introducing forms of analysis and synthesis into the child's perception which he would be unable to develop by himself" (p.24). And "by subordinating himself to the adult's verbal orders the child acquires a system of these verbal instructions and gradually begins to utilize them for the regulation of his own behavior" (p.24).

It's about this point that Luria begins to cite Vygotsky, who he portrays as "one of the first to express the view that speech plays a decisive role in the formation of mental processes, and that the basic method of analysing the development of higher psychological functiosn is investigation of that reorganization of mental processes which takes place under the influence of speech" (pp.25-26). Luria discusses Vygotsky's discussion of external speech's role in problem solving and the notion of speech mediating behavior (p. 29).

After some discussion, Luria gets to Ch.3, where he discusses the case under investigation: uniovular twins, the youngest in a large family. These twins did not speak at all until the age of two, and "at four years their speech consisted only in a small number of barely differentiated sounds which they used in play and communication" (p.39). They had developed some "autonomous" speech (that is, private language) (p.40). They did not understand others' speech well, and "speech which did not directly refer to them usually completely passed them by" (p.40). Their play involved "manipulation of objects independently of any other aspect of the play materials provided"—that is, they did not role-play, tell stories, or sequence complex play actions, nor did they show interest in primarily symbolic play, e.g., games such as lotto (p.41). They played primarily with each other and did not show much interest in other children's games (p.41).

How were Luria and his collaborators to help these twins? The cultural-historical principles, set out earlier, suggested that language was an important precursor to more complex activities since it provided the means to symbolically mediate them. It also suggested that mental capacities developed in relation to cultural-historical activities. These insights grounded Luria's interventions: as Luria put it, "The essential moment, which calls forth the development of speech, is undoubtedly the creation of an objective necessity for speech communication" (p.72). The resulting interventions ultimately helped the twins to develop their language, abilities, and participation in play.

In Ch.4, Luria more carefully inventories the challenges the twins faced, focusing specifically on play activity:
The researches of Vigotsky, Elkonin, Fradkina and others have shown that it is precisely during the play of children of pre-school age, when their behavior becomes subordinated to an imaginative pattern, that there appear those peculiar features of activity which give promise of future development, which lay the foundations for a transition to new, more complex forms of mental life. (p.74)
Luria first discusses observations of the twins at play. The twins could take part in primitive play, in which an object was assigned a conditional meaning. But "complex meaningful play, which proceeded from some preliminary project and involved the steady unfolding of this project in a series of play activities, was inaccessible to them" (p.75, their italics).

Luria and colleagues then begin small, targeted interventions such as encouraging the twins to assign conditional meanings; asking them to draw and name their drawings; asking them to construct things with blocks; asking them to imitate patterns of blocks; and classifying items (something that Luria had done in other contexts). He found that "In cases when the situation demanded that the children act in accordance with some project, that they realize this project in some developing constructive activity, their actions did not depass the limits of helpless manipulation of objects and there was failure" (p.80, their emphasis). And "constructive activity in accordance with a verbally formulated task was beyond our twins, who could not themselves formulate the task verbally and so provide a reinforcement when the corresponding activity began" (p.82, their emphasis). The processes of abstraction and generalization are closely connected with language, so the twins' lack of developed language skills meant that they had trouble with these aspects as well. For instance, rather than classifying objects, the twins would range them (p.83). 

How could Luria rectify these deficits? Luria saw an opportunity: Since the two were uniovular twins, he could introduce different interventions for each, demonstrating that the results were not based on genetic heritage but on the interventions themselves. So he did two things:
  • First, he separated the twins into two different sections of the kindergarten. Since they could not longer play with each other, they had to learn to play with other children, which meant communicating with them, playing with them, and learning to engage in their activities.
  • Second, he identified the weaker twin—the one who lagged developmentally—and gave that twin special activities that amounted to what we would now call speech therapy. The other twin was the "control," receiving no additional intervention.
In Chapter 7, Luria discusses the results of these interventions. He argued, "we have every reason to suppose that the acquisition of language would introduce important new peculiarities in the structure of our children's mental processes" (p.84). And indeed, three months after the interventions described above, the twins had improved their play activity. Luria put them together again to conduct comparative observation, and found that now both twins were using complex speech to orient and analyze their play—play that was now more complex, unfolding in several stages (p.86). Their speech reflected a multistage process in which they singled out an object, fixed the play situation, and planned the succeeding activity. Objects began to take on permanent, not just conditional, significance (p.86). Speech let them detach from the situation, subordinate their activity to a verbally formulated project, and stand in a new relation to the situation (p.87). 

The twins had also improved their constructive activity. Luria cites Marx's famous passage in Capital about the difference between bees and architects (the architect projects his construction in his imagination before making it in reality) (p.87). Before the intervention, the twins were like bees, unable to project the construction and thus unable to undertake any "real constructive activity"; afterwards, they "were in a position not only to exclaim and to apply separate meanings arising during the course of the activity, but also objectively to formulate their projects," and thus "productive activity began to be possible. This took place according to the clear phases of a verbally formulated project" (p.87). Similarly, the twins could model things in plasticine, draw objects, and cut out basic shapes (pp.88-89)—symbolic activities that had been inaccessible just three months earlier.

Beyond that, the children began to undertake more stable productive activities and to actively regard the products of these activities. For instance, Yura built a "metro" out of blocks one evening; the next morning, he returned to this building, still saw it as a "metro," and continued its construction (p.90). This persistence was entirely new.

And this brings us to the differences that began to be seen between the twins' performances. Yura was the twin who had received supplemental training. Up to this point, Yura had been the weaker twin and had customarily followed the lead of his brother Liosha. This relationship continued in physical activities. But in symbolic play, Yura "never let the initiative out of his hands, first formulating the project and then taking the active role, while Twin B [Liosha] only followed him" (p.93). Yura was better equipped to perceive and comprehend speech, but also to understand and repeat symbolic games, assign new meanings to objects, interpret pictures, analyze component parts of drawings, and classify objects according to categories beyond color (pp.94-96). These differences, Luria argues, were all due to the speech training Yura received: abstractions, meaning/functional categories, and logical deductions were all easier for Yura because they all depended on the mediation of speech (p.99).

One more thing. Early on, children do not perceive the word in itself; only in the process of play and (later) school "does the word itself become an object of special perception and special conscious activity." And "It is precisely in this respect that differences between the twins were manifested, one having been specially trained in speech while, in the other, speech arose only as a result of practical activity" (p.100). When, after ten months, "both twins were set problems involving a set of operations with the aid of their own speech, it was demonstrated that an elementary special operation with the aid of speech was accessible to the trained Twin A but remained inaccessible to Twin B who had not undergone special speech training" (pp.100-101). 

One may wonder here why Luria did not begin offering speech therapy to Liosha after three months, when differences were so clearly detected. In fact, Luria never tells us whether Liosha ever gets the speech instruction Yura got. Luria remains a puzzling figure to me, sometimes seeming compassionate and concerned with the individuals he helps, but sometimes seeming oblivious to the suffering of his participants (as in his early experiments with what would become the lie detector). 

Nevertheless, this slim book gave me additional insights into the cultural-historical approach. If you're interested in the Vygotsky Circle and/or activity theory, I highly recommend it.

No comments: