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Socio-cultural psychologist

The principal historical figure behind so-called socio-cultural psychology is Lev Vygotsky, who lived in Moscow during the 1920s. By all accounts he was an unusual man, a many-talented individual who directed plays and wrote about subjects as diverse as art, neurophysiology and Marxist theory. But his main occupation was as an educational psychologist, mainly working with children who had severe physical and mental disabilities. Inspired by his practical educational experiences as well as Marxist ideas about the importance of the development of tools for the beginnings of human society, he developed a new theory of cognitive development and learning. Central to this theory was the use of one distinctive tool – language – which he suggested had originally enabled human thinking and social behaviour to become distinct from that of other animals.

Language: a defining human characteristic

It is commonly accepted that language is a defining human characteristic – no other species uses a communication system so complex, and our entire way of life depends on its use. Language enables us to share experience, within and across generations, in ways that other species cannot. Members of each new generation of chimpanzees, dolphins, or any other intelligent species have no comparable way of learning from their elders; most of the knowledge each individual animal gains dies with them. But Vygotsky realised that language is more than a complex, highly effective medium for sharing information. Once humans learn their first language, it becomes inextricably interwoven with the patterns and contents of their thoughts. In acquiring a language, Vygotsky suggested, children gain a tool for thinking. As he put it,

“Children solve practical problems with the help of their speech, as well as with their eyes and hands” (Vygotksy, 1978, p. 26).

He went on to argue that humans gain a cognitive advantage over other species not only because individual experiences, realisations and solutions to problems can be shared much more explicitly, but also because the fusing of language with thought provides children with the means for a unique kind of mental development.

Thought and language

Vygotsky did not live to see the full effect of his ideas on the world of psychology, as he died in 1933 at the age of 37. His book Thought and Language, published the year after his death, created much interest in his native country, but then it was banned because of its incompatibility with the Pavlovian psychology officially sanctioned at that time by the Soviet authorities. An English translation of Thought and Language first appeared in the early 1960s (Vygotsky, 1962). That book was, in any case, only a partial account of his theory and it took until the 1970s and 1980s for much more of his work to become available outside Russia, and for its impact on education and the social sciences to begin to be apparent (e.g. Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985). By the mid 1990s, Vygotsky’s work had inspired a new kind of perspective on human thought and action which, as mentioned above, has become known as socio-cultural psychology.

Functions of language

From Vygotsky we have the notion of language serving two functions:

  1. as a psychological tool
  2. as a cultural tool

As a psychological tool, we use it not just as a classification system for organising our thoughts, but also for reasoning, planning, reviewing. This ‘psychological tool’ provides what Derek Edwards (a British psychologist and educational researcher whose work has been strongly influenced by Vygotsky’s ideas) calls a ‘semiotic technology’, which:

“… breaks the world down into its component parts and processes, as mining and metallurgy do, and puts them together again as in craft workshops and factory production, in new or imitative ways, in the form of sentences, propositions, versions.” (Edwards, 1997, p. 44)

Our use of language as a cultural tool involves us in a two-way process of constant change. ‘Culture’ is the joint knowledge available to members of social groups which provides the basis for co-ordinated social activity. Gaining access to the culture of society is a formative influence on our ways of thinking. Each day our interactions bring our society alive again, and we can reshape the culture of our society by our own involvement in it. We use language not only as a means of sharing information in society, but also as a way of making things happen – by influencing the actions of others.

An interactive theory

Unlike most other psychological theories which have influenced educational practice, Vygotsky’s is not an individualistic theory of learning and development. It is an interactive theory, which aims to deal with the activities of teachers or others with guiding influence as well as with those of the ‘learners’. For these reasons, the socio-cultural perspective built upon the foundations of Vygotsky’s work has recently been seen by some second language learning researchers as offering a better basis for future applied research than the more individualistic perspectives which have been used hitherto in the second language acquisition (SLA) field (Van Lier, 1996; Lantolf and Appel, 1994; Lantolf, 2000).

From a socio-cultural perspective, then, we take our first, infant steps as social beings, not as individuals. As Vygotsky suggested – and as others such as the developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner have since described more explicitly – right from infancy language allows a complex interplay between cultural development and individual development. Bruner says,

“One of the most crucial ways in which a culture provides aid in intellectual growth is through a dialogue between the more experienced and the less experienced.” (Bruner, 1971, p. 20).

Michael Halliday also neatly describes the Vygotskian conception of the role of language in education by saying:

“When children learn language … they are learning the foundations of learning itself.” (Halliday, 1993, p. 93).

While Vygotsky’s own research was not based on the analysis of life in mainstream classrooms, it has in recent years provided the stimulus, and an important part of the theoretical basis, for practical, applied research into the process of teaching and learning in schools.


Bruner, J. (1971) The Relevance of Education New York: Norton.

Edwards, D. (1997) Discourse and Cognition London: Sage.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1993) ‘Towards a language-based theory of learnin’ Linguistics and Education, 5, 93-116.

Lantolf, J. P. (2000) Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lantolf, J. P. and Appel, G. (1994) Vygotskian Approaches to Second Language Research Norwood, NJ: Ablex Press.

Van Lier, L. (1996) Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy and Authenticity New York: Longman.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962) Thought and Language Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind and Society Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Wertsch, J. (1985) Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


[Information last accessed: 27 July 2017]

This article is adapted from ‘Language as a medium for teaching and learning’. An OpenLearn ( chunk reworked by permission of The Open University copyright © 2016 – made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence v4.0 As such, it is also made available under the same licence agreement.