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Can Thoughts Occur Without Language?

Updated on July 6, 2017
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Glenn Stok has studied fields of science, physics and philosophy, for over 40 years—since his college days with a Master of Science degree.

As I continued my research to find a definite answer to the question: Can thoughts occur without language? I began studying books about language-less children and adults. I found convincing answers among the Deaf community with the help of a book by Susan Schaller, a teacher of American Sign Language (ASL).

The major theme of Susan Schaller’s book, "A Man Without Words,”{1}is about the language development of Ildefonso, an Indian Mexican who was born deaf. Having lived in total isolation, he never learned any form of language. Susan wondered how he could think without language and took it upon herself to teach him ASL.

This article is a discussion, with my interpretation, of what goes on in the mind of a language-less person. It’s mostly based on what Susan had learned from Ildefonso after giving him the capability to share his thoughts and feelings.

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Thinking With the Sound of Words

It seems to me that when we think we imagine the sounds of the words we are thinking. We don't actually hear the sounds, but we consider the sounds based on prior knowledge of what the words sound like. Would you agree with that? Think about it. Then pay attention to see if you are hearing in your head the sound of the words of your thoughts.

In Ildefonso's case, he never heard words, so he couldn't have the ability to imagine the sounds as he thought. Due to this, he was limited in the way he envisioned the world. He had no concept of time. He didn’t know that things had names because he never had to refer to anything for what it was. He didn’t even know that people had names.

Internal Thought Process Without Words

As Susan continued to teach Ildefonso, he gradually learned that things have names. That was the beginning of his realization that people have a way to communicate—by reference to things.

So I imagine that means that he was able to begin using names of things, in his own mind, as a way to contemplate his thoughts. He still couldn't have had spoken language, per sé, since he never heard speech. However, he was thinking. That became evident when one day he signed to Susan "dumb me."

She was surprised that he had learned a sign on his own. It was just sad that he had learned such a negative one about himself. Nevertheless, it indicated that he had the ability to reason. Without fully understanding the reason for his limitations, he reasoned that he was lacking in some way. In my opinion, that means he was thinking.

He still didn't have language that has sounds, as we hear words, but he did have the sign language that Susan was teaching him. That, alone, was obviously sufficient for him to use for his own internal thought process.

Visual Thinking

I learned something amazing from Susan's book. She described what occurred when two deaf people spoke, or I should say signed, with one another. They exchange lots of information about their lives and backgrounds. They communicate solely by signing and gesturing with their hands and facial expressions. The speed of the communication is beyond belief for two people who had no speech due to deafness.

The method used is what Susan refers to as visual thinking. They are able to share thoughts visually.

Based on that example, I came to my own conclusion that if one has no spoken language, they can still think with visual interpretation. In an example Susan described, the way the two of them got along in visual conversation clearly showed that one can think their thoughts in the same way–visually.

How Deaf People Think Without Language

Once Ildefonso had a rudimentary usage of signing, he began to pick up new signs simply by observation and noticing their usage in context.

This made me realize that it must be the same as the way hearing people pick up new words as they hear them used in sentences.

People in the Deaf community don’t consider themselves disabled because they can communicate with ASL and with reading and writing.{2}

I became curious to know how they could learn this without hearing. The answer I got from several authors who are teachers of sign language is simply that they learn from visual observation. After all, sign language is visual.

This applies to understanding and comprehension as well. Without the ability to hear and having no formal language, the only way to have any sort of understanding of one's experiences in life is to visualize them.

With that ability, their thinking is done the only way their mind understands. That is, with visualizing the signing in their heads.

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Late Language Acquisition

While teaching deaf students, Susan continued her research and found some other teachers who taught ASL to language-less children and adults.

Susan found a teacher named Dr. Virginia McKinney who teaches deaf adults. Dr. McKinney had a student she called Joe who she began teaching when he was already 18.

Joe could only make gestures to communicate with others. However, his language learning developed similar to Ildefonso, who had started at a younger age. This indicates that it's possible for a person to learn a language even though he or she never had a language to think.

In my opinion, they must be thinking in some way, obviously not with words, and probably not with symbols either.

Dr. McKinney shared a lot of information about her students with Susan. One of the most intriguing things I learned from Susan's book is that language-less people eventually have an “aha moment” when the symbols of ASL begin to make sense.

As Susan explains, they eventually have a moment of understanding when they realize the ASL symbols, and even written words, "carried something bigger than itself."

After that awareness of meaning, and with further language lessons, the students begin the have the ability to describe their early life experiences. That proves that despite the late acquisition of language, they were thinking long before that and had saved their memories of the days when they had no language skills.

The Language of Thought

Based on my research and studying the reports written by teachers of language-less people, it’s obvious to me now that something goes on in their heads despite the lack of language. It's a thought process that connects experiences with memory. That memory can be tapped later to communicate with others once they learn a language, either written or ASL.

What goes on in their heads is still a mystery. We can only imagine having thoughts with words because that is what we did ever since we first learned to speak. The answer lies with those who were born deaf.

The story of Ildefonso intrigued me immensely as I learned that he was aware of social norms and conducted himself accordingly. I'm referring to things such as making eye contact and appreciating other people's social space.

He obviously acquired this knowledge without any form of language, so I wonder what went on in his mind. Did he think about it or was it simply second nature? If he did think about it, was it a visual thinking as I discussed earlier?

How could he have formed the thoughts without the use of language? If it was just second nature, it still must have developed in some way—either by observation or trial and error with positive and negative results. Even that would require thinking, in my opinion.

What I read about Ildefonso and Joe clearly shows me that they were thinking long before they acquired a language. This became clear to me when I read that they were able to explain what their lives were like before they had language skills.

They were aware. They were conscious. They may not have understood everything they observed or what things meant, but they remembered the experiences and were able to recall the memories later in life when they had the ability to describe the experiences.

My conclusion is that they were thinking long before they had language. There obviously is a language of thought that’s not dependent on language as we know it.

Source

Subconscious Thinking Without Language

Susan had lost track of Ildefonso as he moved on and made a life for himself. Years later when she ran into him again, she discovered that language had changed him and his thinking.

This became obvious when Susan met Ildefonso's brother, who was also deaf. The two brothers had developed their own version of a sign language when they were young and that’s how they communicated. Ildefonso's brother never advanced very much with language as Ildefonso had.

As adults, the two of them had difficulty communicating because of the way Ildefonso acquired language capabilities that his brother never understood.

Susan had tried several times you ask him how he thought before he had language. He never gave her an answer. Instead, he just needed to tell his story of his past.

I find it interesting that he was able to describe that time of his life to Susan, but never explained how he thought about things at that time. I think that he just never understood the question because whatever process he used to think, it was on a subconscious level and he had no idea of it. The idea of "thinking" may have been so foreign to him that he never could explain it.

Non-linguistic Thought and Reasoning

An American philosopher, Jerry Alan Fodor (born 1935), offered a description of the process of thinking that was first explained by Gottlob Frege, a German philosopher (1848 - 1925). Their "language of thought hypothesis" stated that the structure of thought is the logical form of a sentence expressing the thought.{3}

We know how our thinking is structured with sentences, or at least that's the case for hearing people who acquired a spoken language. However, what is the structure of non-linguistic thinking?

I imagine that any thought process leads to some form of reasoning. So it shouldn't matter if one has language or not. If they are thinking creatures, then they are behaving in a logical and rational manner, unless their thinking is flawed—which of course is possible. But that is another end of the spectrum.

In a related book that I read, ”Thinking Without Language”, author Hans Furth asks the question "What could count as evidence that a non-linguistic creature is behaving rationally?"{4}

I found the answer is clearly proven in Susan's book. She explained how many of the language-less people had healthy social interactions. An obvious example was when Ildefonso felt bad about Susan giving him gifts that were more expensive than he could give back to her. He also had a keen desire to learn and to seek constant employment. This shows that he considered these things and was sensitive to the outcome of his actions.

Many of Susan’s other students also had healthy reasoning—even those who had less developed alternate language skills. This confirms that some other cognitive process is going on in their minds that is not dependent on language.

Language-less Communication

Ildefonso had many friends who he knew from childhood who were all deaf and language-less. He arranged for Susan to meet them in a friendly gathering.

I found this gathering to be a very educational experience that Susan described in her book. They all told stories of their past experiences. Of course all the stories were mimed with signing included. Most of them never learned ASL so they improvised with their own developed version of signing.

Since they didn't use a common signing language, the communication was not completely understood. However, they all had a special way of repeating stories and giving feedback from one to another in an effort to make things as clear as possible.

This method of communication was developed on their own with no interaction from teachers. They were effectively developing a language. It's probably the closest thing to how cavemen first learned to communicate with speech. Only in their case, they used mime gestures and signing since, being deaf, they had no notion of sound.

How they thought and how they contemplated everything that was happening in their lives prior to having language amazes me.

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Final Thoughts – A Conclusion

Those who had some hearing ability and those who became deaf later in life have the advantage of speech, but those who never heard a sound have difficulty learning to speak.{5}

Without knowledge of the sound of words, I wonder what their internal thinking is like. When you or I think about things, we hear the words in our heads. Don't you? I know I do. So it's still a mystery to me how thinking is achieved without language.

Do the Deaf think in sign language? Do they think in pictures? Do they think in mime? Based on what I learned from the books I referenced, and my discussion above, all three of these seem to be the case.

The conclusion I've come to in all my studies is that thinking can be achieved in a number of ways. Our interpretation lies in our understanding of what the brain does to compensate for missing tools.

For example, blind people develop a keener sense of touch and smell. With that in mind, it's conceivable that language-less people have other ways to think. We know they do. The experiences that Susan Schaller described in her book make that clear. She found many language-less adults who have "normal" lives. They have good jobs, they drive, they have families, and they have their own clan of other language-less friends with whom they socialize just as well as speaking people.

Awareness or consciousness does not require words. However, once language is achieved, the type of language determines how we think. I discuss these two concepts in my other article: “Do We Need Language to Think?

References

{1} “A Man Without Words" Author: Susan Schaller (University of California Press) ISBN: 0520274911

{2} Deaf with a capital 'D' | AllDeaf.com

{3} Language of Thought Hypothesis | Wikipedia

{4} “Thinking Without Language: Psychological Implications of Deafness” Author: Hans G. Furth (Free Press) Chapter 6 ISBN: 0029110009

{5} “Thinking Without Words (Philosophy of Mind)” Author: Jose Luis Bermudez (Oxford University Press) ISBN: 0195341600

© 2017 Glenn Stok

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    • Glenn Stok profile image
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      Glenn Stok 4 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Venkatachari, Your comment is spot on. Even Ildefonso was able to think and feel things prior to having language. But once he acquired language his thinking changed, as I mentioned in this article, and he no longer understood or remembered how his pre-language "thinking" worked. That's is why he couldn't answer Susan's questions when she asked how he thought.

      The author you described reminds me of writings by Dr. George Boeree, who studied the evolution of languages. He also goes back, probably to the beginning of language. His essays are online and are very thought provoking and educational.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 4 months ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very interesting article and well-presented. I think that thoughts without language may be a problematic task because whenever we think we think with words and phrases. But, at the same time, those who do not find words also can think and feel things and express their reactions through signs and movements. So, it depends on the circumstances of the person. I read one book dealing with the language process and evolution of it sometime back. He described it very beautifully from the very pre-historic period to the present state of language communication in an elaborate way giving many examples of groups of people on whom he conducted tests based on his researches.

    • Kate Mc Bride profile image

      Kate McBride 4 months ago from Donegal Ireland

      This is awesome Glenn Stock. I look forward to reading your other similar article. I believe that nonverbal communication (NVC) counts for 90% of communication. Language is the other 10%. Consider Sir David Attenborough & his Natural World (wildlife) programmes. The main thing he narrates is the communication skills of animals who don't have formal language but first class NVC. Even plants "know" time- if you keep potatoes or garlic in a dark cupboard, they will only sprout at certain times of the year! Nature is awesome Really, isn't it? Cheers for sharing this excellent hub. k

    • Glenn Stok profile image
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      Glenn Stok 4 months ago from Long Island, NY

      MsDora, Thanks for that feedback about this discussion and my presentation. If you're interested, I also discuss other questions dealing with this subject in another article: "Do We Need Language to Think?"

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 4 months ago from The Caribbean

      What an interesting discussion! As soon as I read your title I thought "Sure, they can " though I do not know how. Still I figure that communication is necessary no matter the language setback. Your article raises so many questions which we may or may not be able to answer, but your presentation is excellent.

    • Glenn Stok profile image
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      Glenn Stok 4 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Nadine, Your story of your history is very enlightening and is a very useful addition to this subject. Your experience confirms that people can think visually, and that the brain compensates in every way it can when something is standing in the way of communication and thought processes. Thanks for your insight.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 4 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      What a fantastic article. When I read the title I immediately had my own answer, because of my dyslexia. I think in pictures and always have done and still do. I clearly recall how excited I was to finally go to school. and my first major obstacle was that I could not understand the symbols that were supposed to form and mean a cat or a monkey. All I saw were squiggles.(letters)

      I still have no idea way some of us are dyslexic. I even had difficulty seeing the difference between a P and the number 3. I turned them around and often unknown to me started mirror writing with major spelling mistakes.

      Needless to say that school became a nightmare and during the late fifties teachers were not very clued up about dyslexia, so my parents were told that I had learning difficulties.

      I interpreted it as being stupid so I became rebellious and my self-esteem dropped.

      When the computer came into my life around 1993 and later word perfect, and today the use of Grammarly Most people who are dyslexic do not have to shy away from writing. I was already in my late forties when I wanted to write down instead of painting the pictures I saw in my head, so my first novel took me 5 years.

      ( typed in Grammarly)