What Did You Say?



In order to understand culture and how it affects language and communication, one must understand what language is universally. Chomsky theorized that language is innate (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2005; Santrock, 2009). This idea can be upheld simply by looking at the brain – a normal brain has parts dedicated to language, such as Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas, that are hardwired to help with motor development and processing of language. When these areas are destroyed, we lose the ability to understand, relay, process, and perform language, regardless of experience and environment.


Timing, structure, and the stages in which we learn language all seems to be quite similar (Santrock, 2009). We all start out babbling – testing things out – whether it be with our gestures in the form of sign language, in our facial expressions and motions in mimicking others, or in forming sounds with our tongues and jaw. Studies by Kuhl (as cited by Santrock, 2009) have shown that all children, even as early as a few days, can pick up on every phoneme of every language – that when born, we all have the ability to understand and recognize a variety of nuances of blending sounds across cultures and nations. As we grow, we lose this ability simply because we do not use it – the fine distinctions of sounds in certain languages are not practiced and simply are pruned from our brain. However, language is much more complicated than just sounds.


Language is part of communication. For many of us, we learn this communication from our environment and caregivers. We “talk to learn” as Vygotsky explained (as cited in Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2005) and someone responds in kind to reinforce it. For instance, when we point with a finger to something that interested us, joint attention usually occurs (Cavanaugh and Kail, 2007), meaning someone notices us pointing, clarifies what we are seeing, and maybe will point at something else for us to engage in communication even further. If no one is there to teach or respond, these abilities to “learn” language are lessened. Language and the practice of language come from the influence of our environment. The nuances of unknown cultural protocols and other environmental influences can skew these things, however.


Hello, social media.


One area of communication that is incredibly important to all cultures is the art of negotiations. Just perusing facebook can give you a bird’s eye view of how well that can go. But, even when face to face, it can still be awkward when you don’t know the rules of communication in regards to culture.


For instance, Graham (1993, as cited in Smith, 2001) noted the vast differences between American and Japanese buyers and sellers in regards to language, both verbal and body, and negotiations. They found that those of the Japanese culture did not like direct rejection, interruptions, or initiative in a lower status individual. Americans were confused by the head nods and whether that was a positive gesture and were unclear when final negotiations were complete in Japanese transactions (Smith, 2001). Solutions to understanding hierarchies in response to talking out of turn, gestures and body language, and the art of different cultures is incredibly important. Kaplan and Cunninghan (2010) recommend that you know both your fellow communicator as well as yourself. They indicated that understanding how directness and subtlety are used is crucial. Also something as simple as “knowing who is in the room” can keep respect at the center of the conversation (Kaplan & Cunningham, 2010, para. 14).


In the classes I teach and the people I encounter in private practice, I have the priviledge of working with a very diverse population. I learn something new from every student and client I encounter. Admitting that I don’t know something about a student or client and his or her culture is the only way to learn. For instance, my class structure is open discussion and conversations can stall when a reference, gesture, or slang is made or used that one culture or group may understand while another does not. If not addressed, it makes for a very awkward class and can cause a separation in the class body. The best thing to do in that situation is simply ask. The person who is unaware (sometimes me!) learns and understands a nuance of a culture other than his or her own while also empowering the person who made mention of the information to explain it from their viewpoint and feel understood. It is a win-win situation. It empowers everyone involved when we attempt to understand each other in this respect.


Language and understanding is a two way street. Make it a smooth ride.



Cavanaugh, J.C. and Kail, R.V. (2007). Human Development: A Life-Span View (4th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education.

Gardiner, H. W., & Kosmitzki, C. (2005). Lives across cultures: Cross-cultural human development (3rd ed., pp. 101–116). Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

Santrock, J. W. (2009). A topical approach to life-span development (custom ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Smith, P.B. (2001). Cross – cultural studies of social influence. In D. Matsumoto (Ed.), The handbook of culture and psychology (pp. 361-374). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

How to Help a Child: Theories of Development



Developmental theories abound regarding the role the mind, body, culture, and society play in growth and learning. Two defining theorists that paved the way are Jean Paiget, the famous Swiss psychologist, and Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist.


Piaget was very definitive in his four stages of cognitive development. These included  sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational (Gardiner, 2001). Piaget theorized that these stages were universal and that every child began at the sensorimotor stage and moved through every stage thereafter in a uniformed pattern of adding schemes (Cavanaugh & Kail, 2007). Schemes, he determined, were mental concepts and images that one files away in personal memory banks. A child begins these schemes very early in life and adds to them as he or she grows. When a child adds to a scheme or memory, by way of learning, Piaget called this assimilation (Santrock, 2009). When a child adds a new scheme or memory and must rework an already determined scheme, Piaget called this accommodation. Piaget believed that, as a child learns and adds to his or her learning, he or she is continually searching for equilibrium (Cavanaugh & Kail, 2007). Often, one is in disequilibrium and it is a constant battle to try and work things out in one’s head – to place those schemes in particular files in order to stay balanced. According to Piaget, such disequilibrium and the continuous search for equilibrium is truly an individualistic and natural process. Piaget’s ideas about cognition relied on the idea that all children find solutions for themselves (Santrock, 2009). Throughout his theory, Piaget rarely referenced the role of culture or society (Gardiner, 2001).


Vygotsky felt quite different about this idea as his sociocultural theory suggested the role of culture and social structures. For instance, zone of proximal development (ZPD) is a term he coined to explain the interaction of an authoritative figure and a child working together to learn (Cavanaugh & Kail, 2007). Vygotsky believed that the interaction – that assistance of an accomplished adult guiding a child – was pertinent to a child’s learning curve. Figuring out what a child could do on his or her own and then picking up and joining in at that particular point in order to instruct and guide for further learning is the defining feature in building learning concepts, according to Vygotsky (Cavanaugh & Kail, 2007; Gardiner, 2001). Scaffolding, a term to explain such teaching, is used throughout a child’s life – from learning how to get dressed to learning how to ride a bike.  Throughout these endeavors, a child and teacher use language. By using language with others, a child learns how to think and process, and in turn, eventually uses that language privately. This becomes “private speech” (Santrock, 2009) or what many adults simply call “thought.” Vygotsky (1978) states: “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological)” (p 57). By engaging in private speech that is initiated through interactions with more experienced mentors, a child can exercise the process of more difficult tasks and understand his or her mistakes (Berk, 1994 as cited by Santrock, 2009). Communication is thus learned outwardly and then turned inward (Santrock), solidifying the role society and culture plays in learning.


Both Piaget and Vygotsky were interested in the role of the mind of the child in the process of development and both theories are constructivist in nature (Santrock, 2009). Both theories play a pivotal role in understanding how children process, learn, and engage in the world around them. Education is key in both theories as well. However, how that education happens is where the theories lose similarity. Piaget believed a child learns through individual discovery. Piaget (1962) believed in a “child’s spontaneous mental development” (para. 19) whereby Vygotsky insisted that instruction and mentoring was significant in learning processes. Piaget’s very defined stages left little room for variance and have been criticized as such through results of replicated studies within different ethnicities and cultures (Santrock, 2009).  Vygotsky’s ideas about cognition were not as well defined as Piaget’s and did not follow a set of stages. Language and private speech are dominant in Vygotsky’s theory, whereby Piaget believed them to play a nominal role.


Though the two theorists both brought incredible key ideas to understanding the nuances of development and the inner and outer working of early growth, the two contradicted each other’s work in many areas. However, their respect for one another was evident even in their dissention. Vygotsky wrote in a preface to one of Piaget’s translated books: “[Piaget’s] clinical method proves a truly invaluable tool for studying the complex structural wholes of child thought in its evolutional transformations. It unifies his diverse investigations and gives us coherent, detailed, real-life pictures of child thinking” (1934, para. 6). Piaget, after Vygotsky’s death, wrote “[O]n certain points I find myself more in agreement with Vygotsky than I would have been [earlier in my career]” (1962, para. 2). He went on to say: “I regret [our disagreement] profoundly, for we could have come to an understanding on a number of points” (1962, para. 1).


So, what does all this really mean? When a child is in your life, watch and observe. Is he or she handling things well? Then let it ride and let them know you notice how well they are handling things. Are they struggling and need a bit of guidance? Then, by all means help them and let them know it is okay to ask for help. Finding that balance can be the tricky part, though. But what’s really important in both psychological theories is simply this: be there for them. Give them your undivided attention when they want your guidance. Let them grow at their own pace and help them make it to that next step if you see things going a different direction. Support them. They will be fine, but with you supporting them, they will be even better.




Cavanaugh, J.C. and Kail, R.V. (2007). Human Development: A Life-Span View (4th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education.


Gardiner, H.W. (2001). Culture, context, and development. In D. Matsumoto, D. (Ed.),The handbook of culture and psychology (pp.11-34). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


Piaget, J. (1962). Comments on Vygotsky’s critical remarks concerning The Language and Thought of the Child and Judgment and Reasoning in the Child. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/comment/piaget.htm



Santrock, J. W. (2009). A topical approach to life-span development (custom ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.



Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Vygotsy, L. S. (1934). Thought and Language. Retrieved from