Egocentric Language – What Does It Mean?

· August 10, 2018

We’ve all seen someone talking to themselves at least once. In fact, I’m sure you’ve done it a few times too. Children are true specialists in this. Many kids under the age of six seem to have a spontaneous, egocentric language that influences their development.

Egocentric language is an interesting subject in developmental psychology. Even though language has a very strong social character, it seems to hide something else. Its spontaneous use, no matter if there’s a recipient or not, could be an indicator that it fulfills more functions besides social communication.

In this article, we’ll be exploring two different theories that try to explain the appearance and functioning of egocentric language. These two theories have their roots in two of the most relevant psychologists in the study of developmental psychology: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Both of them present two different explanations of this phenomenon.

“It is with children that we have the best chance of studying the development of logical knowledge,mathematical knowledge, physical knowledge, and so forth.”

-Jean Piaget-

Piaget’s egocentric language theory

In order to understand Piaget’s perspective on this, it’s important to consider his developmental theory, which is based on the development of logical intelligence. Thus, this type of development will condition the child’s ability to relate to others. According to Piaget, the child will show a deficit in their social abilities until they develop the so-called “theory of mind“.

For Piaget, the egocentric language phenomenon is centered on the speaker, without caring for another person’s perspective. This happens because the child lacks the ability for social interaction. We can also observe this egocentric behavior through thought and perception.


A girl and a text bubble representing egocentric language

“When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.”

-Jean Piaget-

Now, why does this language exist if isn’t useful in communication? Piaget states that egocentric language appears as an expression of the symbolic function that the child just acquired. Around the age of three, the child is able to picture their world through language but hasn’t yet understood its social function. The language is based on themselves. It fulfills a symbolic function rather than a communicative one.

Progressively, around the ages of six or seven, the child will acquire the theory of mind. That will lead them to understand social interaction and how important it is to use language to communicate. In most cases, those stimuli are enough for the kid to abandon their egocentric language. Their thought process will go from egocentric to logical and they’ll learn the communicative aspects of language.

Vygotsky’s egocentric language theory

Vygotsky’s explanation is completely different. He states that socio-cultural factors influence us from an early age. He rejects Piaget’s premise that children under six years old aren’t interested in social interaction. A baby’s communicative attempts clearly show their interest in being social.

“The child begins to perceive the world not only through his eyes but also through his speech.”

-Lev Vygotsky-

For Vygotsky, language always has a social and communicative function. Children speak in order to communicate with others and, at the same time, they develop a symbolic function in a social context. Children begin to discover the uses of language by using it, one of them being the ability of language to regulate behavior. Language helps us structure our thoughts and actions.

Father and son talking under a tree.

According to Vygotsky, egocentric language uses language to improve self-regulation. For this reason, it doesn’t have to have a recipient. Now, why does egocentric language disappear at the age of six? This is where a key process called “internalization” appears in Vygotsky’s theory.

At the age of six, the child is able to internalize this egocentric language and make it part of their thought process. This means the self-regulatory process would become part of their internal speech and that language is the essential foundation of our thinking

These are two very serious attempts to explain the reasons and the context in which the egocentric language develops. Both hypotheses are different and have strengths and weaknesses. The information and data will differ depending on the perspective through which language is studied. This shows how complex and dimensional the language process is. It demands a thorough investigation to thus be able to answer the questions that it raises.

“Language is the tool of the tools.”

-Lev Vygotsky-