Children's Private Speech

Children's Private Speech

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Children's Private Speech

Walk into any classroom or playground full of young children aged from four years old through to six or seven, and you will be overwhelmed by the constant noise. Now think back to your own childhood, and try to recall if it was that noisy when you were that age. If you can¡¦t , you are probably like the majority of people. But you will definitely remember the adults in your life telling you to ¡§shut up¡¨, ¡§be quiet¡¨ and ¡§sshhh¡¨. Many Psychologists have noted what is actually being said in all this noise, and attempted to establish what level of communication is actually taking place, and the purpose of this communication.

A large proportion of this talking has been labeled ¡§private speech¡¨. Private speech could be defined as the ¡§speech uttered aloud by children which appears to be addressed to either themselves or to no one in particular¡¨ (Allyn & Bacon, date unknown). Many people have attempted to explain why children use private speech so prominently, and to explain the role that it plays in a child¡¦s development, if any at all.

Piaget (1926) looked at the private speech phenomenon and referred to it as ¡§egocentric speech¡¨, as he believed it was the result of children being cognitively immature. He observed many children between the ages of four and six, and concluded that their private speech was egocentric as they were unable to communicate the views of others. Piaget also concluded that their speech was solely for themselves, and served ¡§no developmental or social purpose¡¨ (Allyn & Bacon). It was also suggested that as children grow older and their social skills develop, and they are able to adopt the perspectives of people, the amount of private speech they use decreases. This can easily be illustrated in Figure 1.

Fig. 1
The relationship between a child¡¦s age and the amount of private speech used.

Not everyone agreed with Piaget¡¦s thoughts and findings. Isaacs (1930), through his studies and observations of children in a small experimental school, noticed an extremely large amount of socialization taking place between the students of this age bracket. He also noted that the use of egocentric speech was found only in rare instances (Allyn & Bacon). This was supported by the findings of McCarthy (1930), who found that egocentric speech was only noticed in one out of every twenty subjects in his study of children aged between 18 and 54 months.

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Vygotsky also made findings that were in conflict with Piaget. Vygotsky (1934) ¡§founded a theory which held that private speech performed a vital, positive function in a child¡¦s development (Allyn & Bacon). Piaget¡¦s theory of 1926, illustrated a converse association between egocentric speech and social communication. This is represented in Figure 2.

Fig. 2
Piaget¡¦s theory a converse association between egocentric and social speech.

Vygotsky¡¦s beliefs were somewhat different to that of Piaget. ¡§Vygotsky believed that private speech emerged out of social speech until the private speech peeked¡¨ (Allyn & Bacon). This can best be represented in Figure 3.

Private speech is an integral function in the integration of language with thought. It helps young children to master their own behaviour (Allyn & Bacon). As these children grow and mature, their private speech becomes more internalized, and less vocal, as it transforms into the child¡¦s inner thoughts (Vygotsky, 1934). This means that the level of private speech a child uses, will gradually decrease after it reaches it¡¦s previously mentioned peek, as seen in Figure 4.

Fig. 3
Vygotsky¡¦s beliefs of the relationship private and social speech.

Fig. 4
Vygotsky¡¦s belief on the behaviour of private speech.

This increase and then decrease in the use of private speech is due to the fact that children use private speech when they are faced with a new or difficult task or obstacle. At the age of four through to seven, children generally have not matured enough to internalize their thought processes, and hence use their private speech as a self-guiding and self-directional function. A child at the age of two is likely to use this language to account for it¡¦s actions, then at the age of four, will more likely to use private speech while they work, and then as the child get older, they may use it to assist with the planning of what they are about to undertake.

Vygotsky believed that a child would take the instructional language of more mature individuals to assist them in achieving a task. The child would take this language and them incorporate it into their own private speech, which would assist with the child¡¦s cognitive development.

While Vygotsky¡¦s findings were revolutionary for their time, Behaviorists were not particularly concerned with the implications they had on language for cognitive development (Allyn & Bacon). As Vygotsky¡¦s work was not even translated into English until 1962, it wasn¡¦t until late in the 20th century when a resolution to the differences between Vygotsky¡¦s and Piaget¡¦s theories could be sought.

This lead to a test of Vygotsky¡¦s findings in 1968 by Kohlberg, Yaeger and Hjertholm. Their study involved observing many middle class students aged between four and seven, while they were playing at school. Piaget¡¦s theory would have suggested that Kohlberg, Yaeger and Hjertholm would have found that the children, who exhibited the least private speech, would be the most mature socially. The Kohlberg study actually found the direct opposite, that the more social students were the ones exhibiting the most private speech. They also found that the private speech of the cognitively advanced students peeked earlier than the private speech of students not as advanced cognitively. This is diagrammed in Figure 5.

Fig. 5
Demonstrates that cognitively advanced children develop their private speech earlier than less cognitively advanced children.

Private speech appears systematically in young children (Winsler, Carlton and Barry, 2000). Kohlberg (et al. 1968) also found that private speech developed in a set progression, moving from one developmental stage, to another, becoming inner directed speech and then finally, thought (see Fig. 6).

Fig. 6
The three distinct stages in the progression from private speech to thought.

Kohlberg, Yaeger and Hjertholm believed that private speech serves this one solitary purpose. This was viewed as an extreme assumption, and questions were asked if their theory would stand true universally.

In 1984, Berk and Garvin made an in-depth appraisal of Vygotsky¡¦s theory. Berk and Garvin observed the private speech patterns of 36 children aged between five and ten (Allyn & Bacon). Vygotsky¡¦s belief that the origin of private speech was primarily, social, and that it increases when tasks become more difficult, was supported by their findings. The view of Kohlberg, that private speech only served one purpose, was not. ¡§We concluded that children¡¦s private speech is multi-faceted and diverse, consisting of different types, each serving a distinct developmental purpose, and each running it¡¦s own course¡¨ (Berk and Garvin, 1984). These types that Berk and Garvin refer include:
„h Word play
„h Emotional expression
„h Self-image development, and
„h Self-guiding / self-directional.

The next step was to look at the relationship between private speech and academic performance, to investigate whether private speech assisted in the learning or outstanding of the child. In 1986, Berk observed 75 students from the first and third grades, whilst sitting a Mathematics test. She found that there was a strong correlation between certain type of private speech and the students test results, which means that a child¡¦s performance could be predicted by looking at the type of private speech that they used. Berk also made the generalization that younger children, with more audible private speech, performed better academically.

Fig. 7
1st Graders Observed; those with more audible private speech, performed better academically.

For the older children, Berk found the opposite. Those that were able to internalize their private speech, performed better in their Math¡¦s tests.

Fig. 7
3rd Graders Observed; those with less audible private speech, performed better academically.
The implications of these findings are many. And there are many more issues that can be explored. Rubin (1982) examined socially withdrawn children and their use of private speech, and concluded that fewer social skills resulted in greater private speech or fantasy play. Similarly, at-risk students use more overt, task-relevant private speech when problem solving (Winsler, Diaz, McCarthy, Atencio & Adams Chabay, 1999). This seems to support the view of Piaget, that private speech is egocentric. Rubin also suggests that this serves an important coping function in non-social children as it allows them to practice their social skills on themselves. Rubins work affirms, once again, that private speech must serve multiple functions (Allyn & Bacon).

There are clearly many different views regarding the private speech of children. Different views regarding it origin, its function and purpose, and its impact on the children¡¦s lives. There are still many others questions about the use of private speech by children that could be answered. What effect does temperament and personality have on a child¡¦s private speech? How does private speech develop in children with learning disabilities? Do language customs affect the child¡¦s development of private speech? One thing that we can be sure of, is that private speech plays a major role in a child¡¦s development.

Allyn, & Bacon. (date unknown). Inside psych ¡V childrens private speech. (video recording). TR Productions, Boston, MA.

Winsler, A., Carlton, M.P., & Barry, M.J. (2000) Age-related changes in pre-school children¡¦s systematic use of private speech on a natural setting. Journal of Child Language, 27, 665-687.

Winsler, A., Diaz, R.M., McCarthy, E.M., Atencio, D., & Adams Chabay, L. (1999). Mother-child interaction, private speech, and task performance in pre-school children with behaviour problems. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 40, 891-904.
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