Overcoming ‘egocentrism’ through private speech: Creative coordination of perspectives in children’s self-dialogue

1.1 Social, cultural, linguistic and educational mediation
Paper in a Symposium (Symp)
Tuesday Aug 29   02:00 PM to 02:30 PM (30 minutes)
Vygotsky (1934/1987) famously critiqued Piaget’s interpretation of the supposedly asocial and useless nature of children’s “egocentric speech” (now known as private speech). Decades after Vygotsky’s death, Piaget (1962) made the stunning admission that Vygotsky was entirely correct about the social origins and functional usefulness of such self-addressed speech. He further conceded that social speech becomes progressively internalized, passing through a period of egocentric (private) speech on its way to becoming silent, inner speech. At the same time, however, Piaget claimed that Vygotsky failed to appreciate the developmental importance of overcoming egocentrism, which Piaget conceptualized as difficulty in differentiating and coordinating cognitive and social perspectives. Piaget further argued that Vygotsky’s proposals about private speech have little relevance to his notion of egocentrism as an inability to shift mental perspectives common in young children. While it is true that Vygotsky did not address egocentrism on these terms, recent neo-Vygotskian work suggests that private speech (and the internalization of speech more broadly) may play an important role in children’s development of social understanding. While Piaget essentially precluded the possibility of shifting perspectives in egocentric/private speech, I argue that, rather than indicating children’s egocentrism, the development of private speech actually contributes to the process of overcoming egocentrism. That is, as part of a process of speech internalization, private speech allows children to differentiate and integrate the multiplicity of social and cognitive perspectives encountered in semiotically-mediated activity. While often implicit in his work, I contend that a dialogical view of semiotic activity undergirds Vygotsky’s work on the internalization of language and that a child “begins to converse with himself exactly as he had earlier conversed with others" (Vygotsky, 1934/1987). Based on my research with preschool children, I present evidence of embryonic forms of perspective-taking in private speech, including dialogic and playful forms of speech that preschoolers addressed to themselves while engaging in activity. I propose that playful private speech during sociodramatic play (the leading activity for preschoolers) may play a pivotal role in this regard, as it enacts the multiple perspectives and rich dialogical dynamics of semiotically-mediated play activity. 
The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY)