Can We Think Without Language?
We need language to express our thoughts to one another. We use it in spoken form and in written form to communicate. But do we need it to think for ourselves? Let's review this.
- How do we think?
- How do we formulate our thoughts?
- Do we think in sentences?
- Do we need a language to think?
- Can we think without words?
To answer these questions, we need first to understand the purpose of language.
Language allows us to communicate with one another. We have achieved all of our progress as human beings with communication.
There are tens of thousands of languages in the world. However, do we need it to think our thoughts, or do we consider concepts without putting them into phrases?
How Did Humans Think Before We Had Language?
What did Cavemen do before they developed language? How did they process the events of the day in their minds? They would grunt, but what was going on in their mind? How were they giving thoughtful attention to the events that they were experiencing?
There was a famous story about a boy who grew up with wolves. Of course, he never learned a language. So how did the thinking take place in his head? Did he think as we do? If so, how? How did he put his thoughts into phrases? Was there a different way that he processed his thoughts?
How do we think about our everyday affairs? Do we just consider things without actual words? Did you ever notice yourself doing that? I mean to process a feeling or a notion or a concept, without words!
Well, maybe with a few words but without fully formed sentences. For example, imagine you’re thinking about going shopping for a new pair of shoes. Just the concept is necessary to carry out the idea. You don’t say to yourself, “I will go shopping for a pair of shoes” — do you?
You possibly only consider the idea “shoes” in your head and maybe the additional idea “shop,” and that’s all that’s necessary.
Cavemen probably did the same thing, but even simpler than that—with no words—just imagining the concept in the thought process. However, this is not a good example since Cavemen didn’t have shoes or stores to go shopping. But you get the idea.
How Does Language Help Us Think?
Thinking extensively involved cognitive thoughts requires a certain amount of language. That is what sets humans apart from other animals. We can analyze and interpret our environment, and we do this with words and sentences in a structured language.
However, with thoughts of our own feelings and emotions, it may be completely different. For example: Do you find yourself saying, "I feel happy," or do you feel the emotion without expressing it in words?
Language is essential for developing broad concepts and abstract thinking, which humans have evolved into doing. Spoken language provides a set of rules that helps us organize our thoughts and construct logical meaning with our thoughts.
However, basic thinking may not necessarily involve sentence structure in our minds. We still have some form of "inner voice" that we use to be self-aware of the world around us and apply our thinking to what we intend to do with that world.
What's It Like Not to Have a Language to Think?
That makes me think about people with extreme autism who have no speech ability. How do they think? What thoughts are in their heads?
Let's consider the cavemen analogy again—a time in our evolution when we didn't have a spoken language yet.
They had their five senses. They had a connection with their world through those senses. However, they didn't have a language to express how they felt about things observed when interacting with others.
So how did they express their feelings in their minds just for the sake of being conscious of daily events?
Using their visual sense, they may have had an understanding of their visual world around them. But is it just visual images? Maybe color and smell as well:
- Thinking by expressing thoughts with colors.
- Thinking by contemplating how they’re affected by odors.
Perhaps that's all the cavemen did to express their thoughts in their heads.
What about music?
Isn't that a form of expression without language? You might say music is also a form of thinking. Surely it's not with words.
But music does have tempo. It uses a mathematical structure. After all, it follows a beat. Music came about long before spoken language.
What about numbers?
The introduction of numbers into language came much later. When cavemen didn’t yet have numbers, they only were able to think in limited numerical terms. Such as "one" or "many." Nothing in between.
There is still a tribe in existence in Brazil, known as the Piraha Tribe, who only have terms such as “few” and “many” in their language. So they couldn’t think in terms of numbers of items.1
Thinking is limited to the extent that's possible with a particular language. Even if I propose the idea that one can think without words, I am also saying that language helps us think. Various languages are useful for different thought processes.
Many spoken languages are ambiguous. Computer programming languages are specialized and designed to be logical. Various foreign languages contribute to one form of thinking or another, based on the needs of the region.
Language Can Create Ambiguity
In my own opinion, I feel that most spoken languages are imperfect. Many words have a certain amount of vagueness, which allows for ambiguity.
Sometimes when two people are talking, neither one realizes that the other is completely misunderstanding what one is saying.
On occasion, I had witnessed listening to two people talking, and I had noticed that neither one knew what the other meant. They both had an opinion on what the other was conveying. However, they each missed the point that the other was trying to make.
Some people have a desire to communicate well. Those people will put extra effort into considering the ambiguity of their statements to avoid misunderstandings.
These same people will, as listeners, make an effort to understand the one speaking. When they catch a phrase that can be taken two ways, they will question the speaker by asking, “What did you mean by that?” Or they may repeat the statement back in their own words and ask if that was a correct interpretation.
The ambiguity of language can easily cause erroneous thinking. That is probably why many of us discover that life hadn't turned out as we had planned when we were younger.
Thinking Fast and Slow
Thinking without words can have a benefit. It can allow us to think faster.
Were you ever aware of yourself considering things without actually putting your thoughts into fully-formed sentences? You may have been thinking in abstract terms, like with the example I gave earlier about buying a pair of shoes.
Abstract thinking is something humans can do. It's a quick way to consider ideas by using symbols that represent them. We can achieve fast-thinking without language by using abstract thoughts.
Consider feelings that we have about experiences in our life. We can interpret feelings and emotions faster than thinking about it with structured sentences.
Rather than thinking, "I like that painting on the wall with the babbling brook" — you simply feel the pleasure, and you're done with the thought. That's much faster.
When we think with words, we are slowing ourselves down. However, language has its benefits too. There's a place for everything.
The Purpose of Specialty Languages
So now this brings me to a point worth mentioning. Different languages allow for the expression of different ideas.
In the mid-1970s, I started my career as a computer programmer. We had various programming languages designed for different tasks. For example:
- FORTRAN (FORmular TRANslation) was a specialty language for mathematical expressions.
- COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) was for business programs.
- BAL (Basic Assembler Language) was the closest you can get to machine language without having to think in pure digits (zero's and one's).
Spoken languages also have special abilities designed into them, based on the needs of the language. I'll give you a couple of examples below.
Thinking in a Foreign Language Can Enhance Thought Patterns
There are over 40 words for camel in the Arabic language. I've done some Google research that shows over 300.
In English, we just have one word for camel, and we include an adjective in front of it to describe the kind of camel. Male camel, female camel, old or young, and so on.
Arabic breaks this down into individual words to describe camels by specific entities such as age, color, number of humps, sex, and breeding status.
This direct reference to different kinds of camels helps communicate since camels are essential for survival in the Arab World. I would say it’s useful for better cognitive thinking as well.
We have a similar example in the western world. We have many different words for various types of birds. Each word refers to a specific bird, such as bluejay, dove, robin, woodpecker, hummingbird, parakeet, sparrow, owl, hawk, etc.
Remembering my High School English, I can explain this. When a direct reference to a noun does not exist in a language, an adjective must be used as a descriptive word.
English and Spanish are two examples where we use a descriptive word (adjective) to define the subject (the noun) better.
In English, the adjective comes before the noun, but this is not common among all languages. Spanish, for example, has the adjective after the noun. In English, one would say, “Julie is my favorite cousin.” But in Spanish, it would be “Julie es tu prima favorita” or “Julie is my cousin favorite.”
You might begin to see that when someone learns a new language, their thought patterns may change as well. The various methods that languages impose restrictions or include more supportive direct references can help with thinking as well as communicating.2
Some animals communicate with other methods that do not require structured language. For example:
- Ants communicate with a sense of smell, using pheromones as chemical signals.
- Bees communicate with dance. They use movement to describe the direction to where they found food.
Okay. I’m talking too much about communication and not thinking.
Non-verbal reasoning is thinking without using sentences.
I gave this a lot of thought. Since the concept was very involved, I was putting my thoughts into sentences to try to communicate with myself.
Maybe one part of my brain was communicating with another part by offering structured sentences to be diagnosed and interpreted.
More importantly, I suddenly realized that I was allowing my brain to reflect on my thoughts. I tried to catch myself reflecting on notions, without actually using words.
We do think in many alternate non-linguistic ways. How often have you just considered a thought visually? Images can replace language for communication and thinking. It's not uncommon to think with image representations. That can even help with interpretation.
Conscious Thoughts and Feelings Don't Require Words
Awareness or consciousness does not require words. There is still some form of thinking going on.
Paying attention to what is going on around us or paying attention to our behavior does not necessarily require words. It’s mostly brain activity.
Different regions of the brain are triggered based on what is happening. We may actually have feelings and emotions that come from this brain activity.
Thoughts in the form of words may not be required to feel the feeling. How often do you find yourself saying, “I feel good about this,” or “I know I should handle this matter differently.”
Those thoughts related to feelings might have developed unconsciously in your brain. You didn't need to use actual words or structured sentences. Words are not always required to describe pleasing or displeasing emotions.
Thinking might be on a conscious level, but I wouldn't rule out unconscious brain activity influencing our thoughts.
Abstract thinking goes beyond concrete thoughts. It allows the ability to visualize ideas beyond the obvious. Child prodigies who can multiply large numbers in their heads are probably using abstract methods of thinking.
You’ll know you are doing it when you find yourself interpreting things around you in the form of representation rather than interpreting things literally. Thinking with representations can be accomplished a lot quicker than actual thinking because no time is wasted putting it into words.
Moral judgments may be made with ‘feelings’ rather than talking to yourself in sentences.
Maybe some people get through life with a little imaginary person on their shoulder telling them how to behave:
- “I must not steal.”
- "I should give this person the benefit of the doubt."
- "I better get out of bed, or else I'm going to be late."
If you find yourself making quick decisions that don’t require much mental reasoning, then you are probably thinking abstractly and non-linguistically.
Our Native Language Determines How We Think
Two linguists, Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941) had publicized an interesting theory. Known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, they state that the way people think is strongly affected by their native languages.
One of their hypotheses is known as the Linguistic Relativity. The words of a language determine how we think.3
I’m not sure I fully agree with this since it means that an individual can only think of a concept using the words prescribed by the language. Although I agree that most of us do that most of the time, I think it's because we had learned a language and we use it.
As I mentioned previously, I think that people can think in terms of concepts. Therefore words are not always necessary. [UPDATE] Some of my readers have left comments (below) that attest to that.
An individual can have a concept of an idea. Have you ever come up with a thought in your mind that you didn’t yet put into words?
Benjamin Whorf indicates that words place a label on the idea, and that influences our thought about it. With that, I agree. Cavemen may have been limited in the way of thinking since they didn’t have a fully developed language.
Language does indeed help with the thought process and with communication, but it’s not an essential requirement. I analyze that further in another article: “Can Thoughts Occur Without Language?”
- Sarah Kramer. (March 10, 2016). “A remote Amazonian tribe could fundamentally change our understanding of language” - Business Insider
- Simon W. Blackburn. (Retrieved November 14, 2018). "Philosophy of language.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Lera Boroditsky. (June 11, 2009). “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?.” Edge Foundation, Inc. Edge.org
© 2012 Glenn Stok
Lawrence Kipchumba on May 29, 2020:
"Language does indeed help with the thought process and with communication, but it’s not an essential requirement."
This captured it all.
Thank you for the well thought out article.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on February 08, 2018:
Tim Mitchell - Thank you for your comment and for the suggestion about “speed of thought.” That idea intrigues me because I relate it to the way the speed of computer processing has increased over the years.
I also like to compare the way the human brain works to the way computers work. So the speed of thought is an interesting addition to that analysis.
Tim Mitchell from Escondido, CA on February 08, 2018:
An intriguing article Glenn. My thoughts are it may have been a challenge to write because you processed 'thoughts' or were thinking, which became abstracts, then related those in words as I am attempting here. I dun'no . . . I will continue pondering this morning. Something you may be interested in and taking a peek at is the recent study and testing of the speed of thought. At this point I shall say I agree with your conclusion; "Language does indeed help with thought process and with communication, but it’s not an essential requirement."
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on December 22, 2017:
Catherine Giordano - Good thoughts on the subject. But how do you know that a gorilla had those thoughts before being taught sign language?
We really don't know that. We have no knowledge of a gorilla's thoughts before signing. If you have some reference to scientific data on it, please let me know. I'd like to read up on it.
Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on December 22, 2017:
You have got me thinking about thinking. You make so many good points about how words shape our thinking. I agree some thoughts can exist without words. Words are something we overlay onto a thought. The most primal thoughts require no words. For instance when a gorilla was taught some signs from sign language, he then hadwords for his thoughts. But he had those thoughts before he had the words.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on November 15, 2017:
Ziyi - You are experiencing the exact same thing I was referring to. When you think, you are using some other form of thought rather than applying words to the thoughts. Thank you for that detailed explanation.
Ziyi on November 15, 2017:
Right now while I'm writing in the comment, my brain is working hard trying to articulate literally my thoughts in a structured way. Before this time point my thoughts in my head were not (completely) literal or structured or well-organized. So, what exactly was I thinking with?
I came across this article because I saw a word that I didn't know in a sentence, yet without knowing its meaning I still understand the content and the meaning of the sentence from the context. But for that specific word, I feel I have some sort of abstract and vague idea of what it could mean but in my head it's all very blurry and vague and I cannot find another word or put it into other words trying to define its meaning, not even in my native language.
Such things happen to me on a daily basis and I normally wouldn't give it second thought. But today it made me thinking...
As a native Chinese but predominantly using English in my daily life, my own experience says that the dominant language one uses (in my case English), has greater influence in one's thinking rather than one's native language (in my case Chinese). I can definitely feel how my English skills confine my ability of thinking in English. It influences my thinking to a degree that I often find myself stuck in a place, empty headed, as my English does not support my thinking yet I cannot activate my brain to continue thinking in Chinese either. As a matter of fact, it is more frequently happening to me that I cannot find the word in Chinese than in English and when I talk with my fellow Chinese people they often complain that I mix with English words or speaking with a foreign feeling.
A lot of times, I find myself "thinking" without (or beyond) language, neither in English or in Chinese. I am clearly thinking of something, but if you ask me, it's difficult for me to tell you exactly what I am thinking about. In that sense, I do feel putting thoughts in words do help to organize and structurize (is that a word?) my thoughts.
I am not sure if that is unique for bilingual people or it's common. And I can't help thinking "if i'm not thinking in either language, what am I thinking with?"
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on August 05, 2017:
Piyush Ranjan - You have interesting questions about being productive without language. I had discussed this in another article: "Can Thoughts Occur Without Language?" I think you'll find answers to your questions here: https://owlcation.com/humanities/thoughts-without-...
Piyush Ranjan on August 05, 2017:
Language is something that's taught to us after we born. It is not innate. I was wondering if there's an alternative to languages? Could we have been more productive without words? As English is not my first language, I find difficult to put my thoughts into words, and this makes me wonder - is language really required? We could have improved non-verbal communication technique which is more universal.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on February 16, 2017:
B. Leekley - That's a good example of alternatives to using words and full sentences. The languages you refer to that make it difficult to label or judge might not have a need for that based on their social norms.
Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on February 16, 2017:
This is a fascinating topic. Google on Buzan Mind Mapping for a way to take notes—to save the main ideas of a lecture, a meeting, a phone call, etc. or to plan an article, speech, book, whatever—using only images and key words.
I have heard of languages that have no to be verbs. This makes it difficult to label and judge others.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on July 05, 2016:
Sue Adams - I didn't know what you meant by being a very lonely existence if we don't need language to think. The way I see it, it would be very lonely if we didn't have language to communicate. Any language would do. Even sign language for the deaf provides the ability to communicate and socialize. But that's getting off the subject since my focus here was about thinking, not communicating.
I did just read your article dealing with communicating with different languages and I found it very interesting.
Juliette Kando F I Chor from Andalusia, southern Spain on July 05, 2016:
I think we all agree that, since the thought come first, to then, if necessary, be communicated in language, we don't need language to think. But that would be a very lonely existence. Check out my latest article, just published yesterday: Hidden Secrets of Languages.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on July 05, 2016:
Sue Adams - These are true points you brought up. But how does that relate to using some form of language to think? You're kind of contradicting your comment you left a year ago. Sure, animals make their needs known. But do they actually use sentences in their thinking process? Do they have fully formed thoughts and concerns? Or are they functioning on instinct?
Juliette Kando F I Chor from Andalusia, southern Spain on July 05, 2016:
What about Koko the Gorilla who learned sign language? Birds too chatter away endlessly in the large tree beside my house at dusk.
Of course animals can think. "I'm hungry, feed me!" says my dog coming towards me at the same time every day, agitating his tail.
On the other hand, animals don't see time as we do. They have no concept of past and future. They always live in the present.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on June 25, 2015:
TIMETRAVELER2 - That's right Sondra. And even after formal language began, it continues to develop and change. Webster constantly has to add new words to the dictionary. And the same goes for any language.
Sondra Rochelle from USA on June 25, 2015:
Fascinating article, Glenn. If you go far back in time, you learn that human beings communicated long before they developed formal languages, and they managed just fine..maybe even more than we do today lol!
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on May 18, 2012:
Keith, Thanks for that intriguing explanation. I'll have to check out Ayn Rand's book.
Keith Engel from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 17, 2012:
Concepts comes first, then language. It is really that simple. For instance, I am one of those people who didn't start talking until I was like 3 or 4. I communicated in the following fashion as my mothers has told me. If I wanted to say the Cat Drank Water. I would make the meow sound of a cat. This equals the concept of cat that was formed in my mind through my perception, a cat meowed, so I meowed. To say drink I actually did the lapping motion with my tongue, that is how a cat drank, so that is what I did. Then finally and this might sound the oddest, is to say water, I did a burping a sound, as that was the sound that occurred when water came out of a hose, thus I associated that sound with water since I heard it and water came out.
This process and relation of concept formation and language is actually studied quite extensively if you are interested, and are don't go in with preconceived bias, by Ayn Rand in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on March 31, 2012:
Danette, I find that very interesting. But it makes sense that both you and your son have similar ways of thinking since he is from your genes. I think faster than I can type. A variation of what you said. But for the same reason. My thoughts are sometimes conceptual and I have to translate it into grammatical phrases when I type. As humans evolve, maybe someday we'll have keyboards with concepts rather than letters. Thanks for your delightful comment.
Danette Watt from Illinois on March 31, 2012:
Sue Adams said, "the process of thinking is much quicker than language." This is very true and I think you touched on it earlier too when you referred to abstract thinking. My younger son and I both talk very fast. I've managed to slow down somewhat because I've started teaching a couple years ago and had to for my students. (He's planning to go into teaching too so I hope he slows down.)
But I commented to him one day that I think a lot faster than I can talk. I often think in "phrases," concepts, images and he agreed he does the same thing.
Very interesting topic. Language is not an easy subject to grasp because it can be so philosophical and abstract. Nicely done.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on March 30, 2012:
Sue, That in an extremely insightful comment!
I love your idea that "Words translate thought into language." Words are a means to communicate our thoughts to others. In addition, words help us organize our thoughts that were already initiated in our brains.
Being that you had learned several languages, your account of that is testimony to the fact that we think, first, without words.
I enjoyed reading your entire explanation. Your comment adds a whole lot of useful examples to my Hub. Thanks so much for adding your insight. I am sure it will help others understand what I had been trying to explain.
Juliette Kando F I Chor from Andalusia, southern Spain on March 30, 2012:
You are right Glenn, thinking can take many forms. On the one hand you can be babbling to yourself with mondain thoughts like "what shall I buy for dinner today?" and write a verbal shopping list. But I think, from my own experience that on the whole, the process of thinking is much quicker than language. I feel that most thinking occurs in imagery and emotion, a bit like seeing a movie. Often words and language are only a means of communicating already existing thoughts. Words translate thought into language, but the thought is already there before it is expressed in words. I know this having had to learn five new languages while growing up. In my head, I always knew what I wanted, what I was thinking without any words. The problem was expressing the thought to make myself understood in what ever country I happened to be living in. That is where words and language come in, at the point of exit for communication. Then there is also instinctive and emotional thought as when you are forced to quickly respond to a situation. For example, if you accidentally fall off a boat into deep water, you swim without thinking in words:"Hhhmmm, what's the best thing to do now?" Very often the brain makes very rapid instant decisions, often bypassing the much slower, chronological order of strings of words.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on March 28, 2012:
BlissfulWriter ~ Thanks for being the first to read and comment. Live in modern times with fully developed languages, we do tend to have mental thoughts with words as well. It's mostly abstract feelings that can be 'thought' without words.
BlissfulWriter on March 28, 2012:
Very philosophical. My first thought is that you need language in order to formulate thoughts. But okay, you've convinced me. There may be times when thought occurs without words.