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The Symbolic World of the Bilingual Child: Digressions on Language Acquisition, Culture and the Process of Thinking

By Nowak-Fabrykowski, Krystyna; Shkandrij, Miroslav | Journal of Instructional Psychology, December 2004 | Go to article overview

The Symbolic World of the Bilingual Child: Digressions on Language Acquisition, Culture and the Process of Thinking


Nowak-Fabrykowski, Krystyna, Shkandrij, Miroslav, Journal of Instructional Psychology


In this paper we explore the relationship between language acquisition, and the construction of a symbolic world. According to Bowers (1989) language is a collection of patterns regulating social life. This conception is close to that of Symbolic Interactionists (Charon, 1989) who see society as made up of interacting individuals who are symbol users. According to Shapiro (1977), learning different languages and cultures influences cognitive processes by exposing individuals to different values, beliefs and demands. How does this affect literacy in the schooling of immigrant children? There are two basic responses to this question. One response is that of Ferdman (1990) who sees the educational system as an equalizer that should help children in integration and adaptation to the major culture. Another response is the retentionalist position which aims to preserve the language and the culture of newcomers. Although, full participation in life is only possible with the acquisition of the language of the majority in which children live, it is very important to provide the possibility of learning the heritage language. This would help children to harmonize their symbolic world built out of internal and external symbols.

In this paper we discuss the relationship between language acquisition and the process of thinking within the symbolic worldview of bilingual children. Language as a symbolic medium influences the child's thought and S. Deri (1984), H. Gardner (1978), W.H.O. Schmidt (1973) and Nowak-Fabrykowski (1992).

In our own work, we have paid attention to the processes of symbolization and schooling. In research we found that children are exposed to an entire spectrum of symbols (Nowak-Fabrykowski, 1991). Some are introduced by language, others by the school and the country in which children are educated. Language employs a special kind of symbolism which encompasses all social objects and actions, and which ultimately constructs the individual's cultural identity and perspective.

Research has shown the importance of analyzing the culture of a child in order to understand what material he/she uses in his/ her thought process. Culture as the dominant factor influences his/her knowledge by importing values, norms and beliefs.

The process of second language education and socialization starts with the first words and concepts learned by the child and with the first experience brought by living in the new country and learning the new language. Many authors stress that the process of teaching children is conditioned by the culture of the society. In order to understand a child and his/her learning we have to analyze the context and influence of culture on the child's process of thinking, since the culture stimulates the behavior of children and influences their learning by exposing them to different values, norms and demands. Celebration of traditional holidays and events help the child to integrate and understand cultural symbols prevalent in their society. By learning the language and meaning of expressions, the child associates and assimilates different values and norms prevalent in the "new" society.

Culture and Thought Process

In considering a definition of "culture", different approaches can be taken. In Spradley's (1979) definition a culture is considered as a system of meaningful symbols. According to Spradley (1979), children in every society discover the meaning of symbols with great ease, and this process accelerates especially with learning the language. Each child is born into a society where he/she learns to recognize the patterns of behavior and the way of life called culture. This culture is a shared perspective among individuals, who are socialized through the integration of different symbols and through interaction inside the society (Charon, 1989). The process of teaching children is conditioned by the culture of a given society. For example the research of Whiting and Child (1953) has examined the different approaches for training of walking and sleeping in Africa and in America.

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