Can Thoughts Occur Without Language?
This article is a discussion of what goes on in the mind of a language-less person. I studied many books about language-less children and adults while researching to find a definite answer to the question: Can thoughts occur without language?
I found convincing answers among the Deaf community with the help of a book by Susan Schaller, a teacher of American Sign Language (ASL). Her book, "A Man Without Words,” is about the language development of Ildefonso, an Indian Mexican who was born deaf.1
Having lived in total isolation, Ildefonso never learned any form of language. Susan wondered how he could think without language, and she took it upon herself to teach him ASL to create the ability to have a dialog with him.
I base my ideas for this article on what Susan had learned from Ildefonso after giving him the capability to share his thoughts and feelings.
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 consider the sounds based on prior knowledge of what the words sound like to us.
Think about it—would you agree that you hear in your head the sound of the words of your thoughts?
In Ildefonso's case (the deaf child discussed in Susan's book), he never heard words. Therefore he couldn't have the ability to imagine the sounds as he thought.
Due to never having heard anything, he was very limited in the way he envisioned the world:
- He had no concept of time because he never heard anyone refer to 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 eventually learned that things have names. That was the beginning of his realization that people have a way to communicate—by referring to things.
So I imagine this 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 a 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 it was such a negative one about himself. Nevertheless, it indicated that he could reason. Without fully understanding the reason for his limitations, he realized that he lacked 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 sufficient for him to use for his internal thought process.
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 can 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 a case that Susan described, the way the two of them got along in visual conversation clearly showed that one could "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 by observation and noticing their usage in context.
That 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 that they learn from visual observation. After all, sign language is visual.
That applies to understanding and comprehension as well. Without the ability to hear and having no formal language, the only way to have an 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.
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. That 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 to 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 evident 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 merely second nature? If he did think about it, was it 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. That became clear to me when I read that they were able to explain what their lives were like before they had language skills.
They may not have understood everything they observed or what things meant. However, they remembered the experiences and were able to recall the memories later in life when they could describe the experiences. That means they were aware and they were conscious during the time they could not communicate.
My conclusion is that they were thinking long before they had language. There obviously is a thought process that’s not dependent on language as we know it.
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.
That 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. 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 we are thinking creatures, then we are behaving logically and rationally, unless our 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 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. That shows that he considered these things and was sensitive to the outcome of his actions.
Many of Susan’s other students also had sound reasoning—even those who had less developed alternate language skills. That confirms that some different cognitive process is going on in their minds that is not dependent on language.
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 unique way of repeating stories and giving feedback from one to another 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.
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
I wonder what their internal thinking is like, without knowledge of the sound of words. 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, all three of these seem to be true. The conclusion I've come to is that thinking can be achieved in many ways.
Awareness and consciousness does not require words. Our brain compensates for missing tools.
For example, blind people develop a keener sense of touch and smell. So 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. All that, just as well as speaking people.
- Susan Schaller. (Aug 1, 2012). "A Man Without Words" - University of California Press
- Smithtr. (Oct 12, 2012). Deaf with a capital 'D' - AllDeaf.com
- Language of Thought Hypothesis - Wikipedia
- Hans G. Furth. (January 1, 1966) “Thinking Without Language: Psychological Implications of Deafness” (Chapter 6) - Free Press
- Jose Luis Bermudez. (Oct 17, 2007). “Thinking Without Words (Philosophy of Mind)” - Oxford University Press
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© 2017 Glenn Stok