Do We Need Language to Think?
• 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.
We need language to express our thoughts to one another. We use it in spoken form and in written form to communicate.
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 for abstract thinking—something 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 is 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.
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.
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.
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 a subject thinks.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
- Philosophy of Language - wikipedia
- Linguistic Relativity - wikipedia
© 2012 Glenn Stok