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4 - Reading and concept formation

«If you think about it, reading is a
necessarily individual act,
far more than writing» 1.

In the previous units we dealt with the subject of perception, of word perception in particular. An object, like a word, evokes something in our mind. But while what is evoked in our mind by an object is completely arbitrary and subjective - for example one could run away in awe at the sight of an innocuous comb - words have a meaning, at least in part, that is codified and valid for a limited number of people.
  The Soviet researcher Vygotsky (of whom we have already seen something in the first part) has studied concept formation in man and its relation to the learning of words. In Vygotsky''s opinion, the role played by words is fundamental: first we learn the relation between an object, a situation or a single action and a word. Up to this point we haven''t learnt a concept, just a relation between a circumscribed situation and a circumscribed sound/graphic sign. In an experiment by Saharov, a partner of Vygotsky, subjects are presented with elements of different shapes, sizes and colors, the so-called "experimental blocks", behind which some meaningless strings of characters are traced. The task consists of establishing conceptual links between shapes, sizes, colors and "new words". Here are Vygotsky''s conclusions:

The formation of the concept is followed by its transfer to other objects: the subject is induced to use the new terms in talking about objects other than the experimental blocks, and to define their meaning in a generalized fashion 2.

Generalization occurs by way of a sort of perception -> word -> perception -> word -> perception and so on chain (i.e. analysis -> synthesis -> analysis -> synthesis and so on) through which new perceptions induce the formulation of new words to describe them, which induces the systematization of perception so that it will be possible, given a finite number of words, to express infinite perceptions, since two identical perceptions do not exist. Word becomes a means for the formation of concepts 3.
  Vygotsky has studied such processes in teenagers, but, in fact, this chain of analysis and synthesis and adjustment of the sense attributed to words, followed and preceded by new visions of reality is endless. When we read, we feed such a spiral. We therefore can easily understand why two readings, even if accomplished in different times by the same person on the same text, are never identical, as we will see better in the units dedicated to the relation between reading and interpretation.
  As far as concept formation is concerned, a reiteration of the distinction made in the first part of the course about linguistic awareness is in order. To be able to elaborate a concept, it is necessary for an individual to be consciously aware of the knowledge she has gained.

[...] consciousness and control appear only at a late stage in the development of a function, after it has been used and practiced unconsciously and spontaneously [...] We use the term nonconscious to distinguish what is not yet conscious from the Freudian "unconscious" resulting from repression, which is a late development, an effect of a relatively high differentiation of consciousness 4.

A child learning the connection between the word "apple" and the set of the fruits identifiable by that word, or a single fruit belonging in that set, knows "what an apple is", but does not know she knows what an apple is: she has no self-reflective awareness and, consequently, she is not able to conceptualize. In other words, we pass from the "spontaneous concepts" described by Piaget 5 to conscious concepts.
  The difference between the learning of spontaneous concepts, like "apple" for example, and the learning of "scientific" concepts, like "exploitation", for example, lies in the fact that

[...] the development of the child''s spontaneous concepts proceed upward, and the development of his scientific concepts downward [...]. The inception of a spontaneous concept can usually be traced to a face-to-face meeting with a concrete situation, while a scientific concept involves from the first a "mediated" attitude 6 toward its object 7.

A further demonstration of the affinity between such "conceptual" awareness, and the linguistic awareness we have dealt with in the first part of this course, is Vygotsky''s statement that

The influence of scientific concepts on the mental development of the child is analogous to the effect of learning a foreign language, a process which is conscious and deliberate from the start. In one''s native language, the primitive aspects of speech are acquired before the more complex ones. The latter presuppose some awareness of phonetic, grammatical, and syntactic forms. With a foreign language, the higher forms develop before spontaneous, fluent speech 8.

In terms of reading, this means that an individual can face texts with concrete concepts until a given age, which is approximately placed in the preadolescent period. Then he acquires the awareness of this knowledge, and learns texts that even contain abstract meanings. As intellectual development goes on, abstraction capabilities become finer and finer. And meanings, both abstract and concrete, evolve.
  In the next unit we will continue our path among words, thoughts, and reading, in order to see the consequences of such evolution on reading and translation.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter''s Night a Traveller, translated by William Weaver, London, Vintage, 1998, ISBN 0-7493-9923-6.

VYGOTSKIJ L.S. Thought and Language. Edited by Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar. Cambridge (Massachusetts), MIT Press, 1965. First edition: Myshlenie I rech´. Psihologicheskie issledovanija. Moskvà-Leningrad, Gosudarstvennoe social´no-èkonomicheskoe izdatel´stvo, 1934.

1 Calvino 1979, p. 176.
2 Vygotskij 1965, p. 57.
3 Vygotskij, p. 59.
4 Vygotskij, p. 90-91.
5 Jean Piaget (1896-1980), known psychologist.
6 As opposed to immediate, direct attitude of the child to the object.
7 Vygotskij 1965, p. 108.
8 Vygotskij 1965, p. 109.