Piaget on the Language and Thought of the Child

Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget distinguishes the language and thought processes of children from adults as he develops an influential theory of child development.

The adult, even in his most personal and private occupation, even when he is engaged on an enquiry which is incomprehensible to his fellow-beings, thinks socially, has continually in his mind’s eye his collaborators or opponents, actual or eventual, at any rate members of his own profession to whom sooner or later he will announce the result of his labours. This mental picture pursues him throughout his task. The task itself henceforth socialized at almost every stage of its development. Invention eludes this process, but the need for checking and demonstrating  calls into being  an inner speech  addressed throughout to a hypothetical opponent, whom the imagination often pictures as one of flesh and blood. When, therefore, the adult is brought face to face with his fellow-beings, what he announces to them is something already socially elaborated and therefore roughly adapted to his audience, i.e., it is comprehensible. Indeed, the further a man has advanced in his own line of thought, the better able is he to see things from the point of view of others and to make himself understood by them.

The child, on the other hand, placed in the conditions which we have described, seems to talk far more than the adult. Almost everything he does is to the tune of remarks such as “I’m drawing a hat,” “I’m doing it better than you,” etc. Child thought, therefore, seems more social, less capable of sustained and solitary research. This is so only in appearance. The child has less verbal continence simply because he does not know what it is to keep a thing to himself. Although he talks almost incessantly to his neighbours, he rarely places himself at their point of view. He speaks to them for the most part as if he were alone, and as if hi were thinking aloud. He speaks, therefore, in a language which disregards the precise shade of meaning in things and ignores the particular angle from which they are viewed, and which above all is always making assertions, even in argument, instead justfiying them. …

What is the reason for this? It is, in our opinion, twofold. It is due, in the first place, to the absence of any sustained social intercourse between the children of less than 7 or 8, and in the second place to the fact that the language used in the fundamental activity of the child—play—is one of gestures, movement and mimicry as much as of words. There is, as we have said, no real social life between children of less than 7 or 8 years. …

If language in the child of about 6 1/2 is still so far from being socialized, and if the part played in it by the ego-centric forms is so considerable in comparison to information and dialogue, etc., the reason for this lies in the fact that childish language includes two distinct varieties, one made up of gestures, movements, mimicry etc., which accompany or even completely supplant the use of words, and the other consisting solely of the spoken word. Now, gesture cannot express everything. Intellectual processes, therefore, will remain eg0-centric whereas commands etc., all the language that is bound up with action, with handicraft, and especially with play, will tend to be become more socialized. …

Ego-centric thought and intelligence therefore represent two different forms of reasoning, and we may even say, without paradox, two different logics. By logic is meant here the sum of the habits which the mind adopts in the general conduct of its operations–in the general conduct of a game of chess, in contrast, as Poincare says, to the special rules which govern each separate proposition, each particular move in the game. Ego-centric logic and communicable logic will therefore differ less in their conclusions (except with the child where ego-centric logic often functions) than in the way they work.


Piaget, Jean. 2001. The Language and Thought of the Child. London: Routledge. pp. 38-47. || Amazon || WorldCat


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