Concept Development in Bilinguals: Vygotskian Framework

Written by Valentina Temina-Kingsolver

Written on . Posted in Language and Thought.

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Tagged with: Language and Thought, Vygotsky, Concepts, Bilingualism

Russian psychologist L.S. Vygotsky worked in the 1920s and 1930s, and devoted a large portion of his book Thought and Speech (Vygotsky, 1986) to the experimental work carried out by him and his colleagues, its purpose being to investigate the development of concepts in school-age children.

This issue is of great importance and interest for those who are concerned with cognitive and psychological development of bilingual students, including administrators, teachers, and parents. Understanding of the processes of concept development as they are related to school-age bilingual speakers may also shed some light on general issues of L1 and L2 acquisition.

Role of Instruction

Vygotsky’s drew an analogy between the processes of acquiring first and second languages and acquiring everyday and scientific concepts. He also wondered about the relationships between school instruction and knowledge acquisition, and the processes of internal development of scientific concepts in the minds of schoolchildren, “The child's thought is non-deliberate and uncon­scious of itself. How, then, does the child eventually reach awareness and mastery of his own thoughts?” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 163)

Vygotsky continuously emphasized the important role of education/instruction for maturity of children’s thought processes in general and the development of their conceptual system in particular. He considered instruction at school age to be the decisive moment which determines the entire fate of the mental development of a child, including the development of his concepts. Vygotsky saw the problem of non-spontaneous concepts, including scientific, as the problem of instruction and development.

At the same time, he emphasized the nonidentity of development and instruction. Instruction serves as the source of development. It is not possible for some mental functions to arise without instruction:

The school years as a whole are the optimal period for instruction in operations that require awareness and deliberate control; instruction in these operations maxi­mally furthers the development of the higher psychologi­cal functions while they are maturing. This applies also to the development of the scientific concepts to which school instruction introduces the child. (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 190)

Vygotsky stressed the importance of creating and implementing corresponding programs in educational processes that would have their purpose to assist the development of scientific concepts: “Analysis of the data showed that as long as the curriculum supplies the necessary material, the development of scientific concepts runs ahead of the development of spontaneous concepts …” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 190)

Through instructional activities, a teacher can find ways to connect students’ everyday knowledge with academic knowledge of schools and thus bring both their spontaneous and scientific concept development to a more advanced point. This issue is particularly critical for bilingual students. Hedegaard (1998) asserts that, “the relation between subject-matter concepts and personal concepts is often much weaker for immigrants and refugees coming to a new country than for children with generations of ancestors in a society” (p. 114). She conducted a study with Puerto Rican children in New York City and noticed that subject-matter knowledge was based on students’ everyday knowledge and activities, and at the same time the everyday knowledge was influenced by the development of scientific concepts in the way that it was brought to more complex levels.

John-Steiner et al. (1998) examined the systematicity of concept formation and used a functional systems approach to analyze the connection between scientific and everyday concepts. According to these scholars, “this approach accounts for the varying conditions under which humans acquire systematic concepts and the ways they relate them to both their everyday experiences and the sociocultural practices of their communities” (p. 128).

Vygotsky argued that the question of the development of scientific concepts in school-age children is the most important practical question that schools face in regard to educating a child in the system of scientific knowledge. This question is an important one for modern schools too, with the advent of NCLB testing. We need to ask ourselves: Does test-oriented instruction help students to develop cognitively and psychologically? Another important question is: What difference does it make for ESL students if they are taught content areas in English, a language they do not fully understand?

Role of Social Interaction

Vygotsky saw great value in cooperative learning and social interaction. One of the central elements in the educational process, according to Vygotsky, belongs to the cooperation of a child and an adult during which the knowledge is transferred to the child by way of the intentional development of scientific concepts. The zone of proximal development of the child in regard to his spontaneous concepts plays an important role here as it paves the way for the development of scientific concepts in the child’s mind.

He considered the most significant difference between the tasks with everyday concepts and the tasks with scientific concepts is that a child has to solve scientific tasks with the help of a teacher. The difference here, Vygotsky claims, is that in cooperation with a knowledgeable other, a child can do more than he can do independently.

Under conditions of educational process, with the systematic cooperation of a teacher, the maturation of a child’s higher psychological functions occurs, including the development of scientific concepts.

Spontaneous concepts do not have awareness and deliberateness. Only with the help of a ‘knowledgeable other’ can they be raised to the level of awareness and deliberateness:

Spontaneous concepts that confront a deficit of con­scious and volitional control find this control in the zone of proximal development, in the cooperation of the child with adults. That is why it is essential first to bring spontaneous concepts up to a certain level of development that would guarantee that the scientific concepts are actu­ally just above the spontaneous ones. (Vygotsky, 1986, pp. 194-195)

Vygotsky continuously pointed out that the process of concept development is a complex one. According to Vygotsky, “scientific concepts are not acquired, learned, or grasped by memory, rather they emerge and form with the help of a great effort through the activity of a child’s own thought” (Vygotsky, 2005, p. 188). He called it “a true act of thinking that cannot be learned by simple memorization” (Vygotsky, 2005, p. 178). In order for a concept to develop, the whole thinking of a child in its internal maturity should be raised to a high level so that a concept should evolve. The task of a teacher is to organize this activity of the child and to form the actions that the child needs for mastering the subject-matter knowledge:

Because the teacher, working with the pupil, has explained, supplied information, questioned, corrected, and made the pupil explain, the child's con­cepts have been formed in the process of instruction, in collaboration with an adult. In finishing the sentence, he makes use of the fruits of that collaboration, this time independently. The adult's help, invisibly present, en­ables the child to solve such problems earlier than everyday problems. (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 191)

Echevarria and McDonough (1995) studied the use of instructional conversations (IC) with bilingual special education students. Through the development of themes, the teacher provided a cognitive link between the story and the prior knowledge of the bilingual students, which helped them understand important concepts. As a result, students often used the concepts in their narratives.

Social interaction and development of language are also essential for the child’s development of social knowledge and Theory of Mind (Garfield et al., 2001, p. 518).

Role of Environment

Vygotsky saw the important role that the environment plays in concept development in that the environment should create motivation for the concepts to be developed. In regard to this, Vygotsky referred to Akh, who considered deterministic function to be crucial for the development of concepts. The environment should stimulate the development of mind/intellect by way of setting new goals and making new demands. Only then can thought processes in children develop to their full potential and reach the highest forms of maturity.

Adolescent Age

Vygotsky noted that adolescent age was very important for concept formation. This is the time when a person’s thinking matures.

One of the characteristic moments for concept development in adolescents, according to Vygotsky, is the adolescent’s use of a concept in a direct/clear situation. Vygotsky pointed out that if an adolescent uses a concept in a concrete situation, he uses it most easily and unmistakably, and how difficult it is for an adolescent to transfer the same concept to different things. When the concept is still connected to the concrete, direct situation, it directs the child’s thinking most easily and unmistakably. When a direct concrete situation changes, it makes it more difficult to use the concept developed in a different situation, but still an adolescent manages to do this at the first stage of maturation of his thinking.

Vygotsky claims that it is much more difficult to define the concept when the concept is used outside the concrete situation in which it was developed, and start expanding it in a totally abstract plane. However, the biggest difficulty that an adolescent has to overcome is the further transfer of the meaning of the newly formed concept to the other concrete situation. “The path from abstract to concrete is no less difficult than once was the path from concrete to abstract.” (Vygotsky, 2005, p. 168)

We can conclude that such imperative factors as instruction, social interaction, environment and age have to be considered in order to contribute to the process of concept acquisition by school-age children, including bilinguals.


Echevarria, J., & McDonough, R. (1995). An alternative reading approach: Instructional conversations in a bilingual special education setting. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 10, 108-1 19.

Garfield, J. L., Peterson, C. C., & Perry, T. (2001, November). Social Cognition, Language Acquisition and the Development of the Theory of Mind. Mind and Language, 16(5), 494-541.

Hedegaard, M. (1998). Situated Learning and Cognition: Theoretical Learning and Cognition. Mind Culture and Activity, 5(2), 114-126.

John-Steiner, V., Meehan, T.M., & Mahn, H. (1998). A functional systems approach to cognitive development. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 5(2), 127-134.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). Thought and Language (A. Kozulin, Trans.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (2005). Myshlenie y Rech [Thought and Speech]. Moscow: Labyrinth.

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