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Old 22nd January 2007, 03:18 AM   #1
andyandy
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How does lack of language affect thinking?

ok - i'm thinking now....and it's in English..... i'm thinking in words....


if i didn't have any language ability, how would that affect my ability to think?
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Last edited by andyandy; 22nd January 2007 at 03:37 AM. Reason: i have no language ability
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Old 22nd January 2007, 03:53 AM   #2
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I've often wondered about this. My minimally informed opinion (I'm an engineer, not a behavioural expert or neurologist) is that lack of language limits thinking to broad concepts and sensory impressions.

How many times have you been able to add flesh to an idea by mentally talking through it: "If I do that, he'll do that and I'll have to do this..."?

Or even talking things through out loud. "Just listen to yourself! Go on, say the whole thing out loud and hear how stupid it sounds."

Our oesophagus is so low in our throats that we can choke by breathing in when we're eating or drinking. Our slender hyoid bone, which anchors the tongue, can be broken by a sharp blow. These are potentially dangerous modifications, so that implies an enormously important evolutionary benefit so they don't get selected out.

Part of that benefit is in the interchange of ideas, but I also believe that being able to "concretise" thoughts by being able to verbalise them is another powerful benefit. In exam revision, you can often retain difficult concepts easier by saying them out loud.

I think language is very important to the thought process.
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Old 22nd January 2007, 03:59 AM   #3
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Originally Posted by Big Al View Post

Our oesophagus is so low in our throats that we can choke by breathing in when we're eating or drinking. Our slender hyoid bone, which anchors the tongue, can be broken by a sharp blow. These are potentially dangerous modifications, so that implies an enormously important evolutionary benefit so they don't get selected out.

Part of that benefit is in the interchange of ideas, but I also believe that being able to "concretise" thoughts by being able to verbalise them is another powerful benefit. In exam revision, you can often retain difficult concepts easier by saying them out loud.

I think language is very important to the thought process.
that's interesting - perhaps the primary evolutionary benefit of language was not social communication - but internal communication.....
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Old 22nd January 2007, 04:27 AM   #4
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ooh - it appears there's a thread in RP on this very same topic
http://www.internationalskeptics.com...60#post2258860

well...let's keep it scientific over here - and leave the philosophising to that one
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Old 22nd January 2007, 05:55 AM   #5
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I've always wonder, do deaf people think in sign language? That is, as we think in words do they think in hand signs

Last edited by SimonD; 22nd January 2007 at 05:56 AM. Reason: grammer
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Old 22nd January 2007, 06:02 AM   #6
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This exact question has been the subject of an enormous amount of research...

The contention that the language you have available directly affects your experience and understanding of the world is called the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis", and the Wikipedia article gives a lot of detail on the research histories and contentions, of which there have been many.

Noam Chomsky (for he was a linguist before he was an iconoclast!) made his name publishing his criticisms of this theory, if I remember correctly.

Last edited by volatile; 22nd January 2007 at 06:29 AM.
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Old 22nd January 2007, 06:13 AM   #7
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I'd like to publish my criticisms of Noam Chomsky, but the words won't come to mind...
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Old 22nd January 2007, 06:35 AM   #8
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I wonder if PET scans show the vocal synthesis areas of the brain sparking up when a person is deep in thought?

Could be a good indicator one way or the other.
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Old 22nd January 2007, 06:44 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by simon dalton View Post
I've always wonder, do deaf people think in sign language? That is, as we think in words do they think in hand signs
Yeah. And just like we hearing people sometimes mutter under our breath while trying to figure something out, they sometimes sign to themselves.
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Old 22nd January 2007, 06:54 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by Big Al View Post
I wonder if PET scans show the vocal synthesis areas of the brain sparking up when a person is deep in thought?

Could be a good indicator one way or the other.
Yeah, but what's it gonna show when I'm planning how to place the flower pots on the terraced drop off in my back yard (a purely visual exercise in 3D) as opposed to when I'm planning the next steps in a programming project (also a visual process in which I SEE myself carrying out those steps) as opposed to when I actually sit down and write program code?

At some point in all those processes, I will resort to words - but mostly when the real work is done. Like placing flower pots. I'll visualize where they belong, then hold that image and COUNT (in a silent voice, but vocalized) how many a particular section will need.

Seems to me that there's a lot of work to be done on the question, and that thought is more likely a combination of verbal and non-verbal activity.
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Old 22nd January 2007, 07:09 AM   #11
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Animals show a lot of different behaviors that we can refer to as thought, some perhapsd have a language of sorts. But iw would appear that alot of problem solving, memory and number lines are non verbal to some extent. Damage to the language centers can cause bizzare neurological effects. Some might effect reasoning.

There would probably be an impact on development if there was no language.
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Old 22nd January 2007, 07:50 AM   #12
Big Al
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Originally Posted by MortFurd View Post
Seems to me that there's a lot of work to be done on the question, and that thought is more likely a combination of verbal and non-verbal activity.
I don't think there's any possible argument about that, MortFurd. However, I think there's a place for verbalised thoughts even in "pure" activities like maths. If multiplying, say, nine and eight, do you not hear the sing-song times table entry you learnt as a child: "Nine-eights-are-seventy-two"?

I do. If I see 8x7, I tend to mentally commute it to 7x8 because "seven-eights-are-fifty-six" seems to scan better.
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Old 22nd January 2007, 07:59 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by Big Al View Post
I don't think there's any possible argument about that, MortFurd. However, I think there's a place for verbalised thoughts even in "pure" activities like maths. If multiplying, say, nine and eight, do you not hear the sing-song times table entry you learnt as a child: "Nine-eights-are-seventy-two"?

I do. If I see 8x7, I tend to mentally commute it to 7x8 because "seven-eights-are-fifty-six" seems to scan better.
i wonder if it's appropriate to look at savants - who seem to have the ability to *think* in purely non-linguistic terms beyond normal human capacities....
watching an interview with one fellow he described how he saw each number from 1-1000 in a different geometric shape/colour and any conflation of those shapes/colours would lead to the answer to a particular arithmetic question......
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Old 22nd January 2007, 08:27 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by Big Al View Post
I don't think there's any possible argument about that, MortFurd. However, I think there's a place for verbalised thoughts even in "pure" activities like maths. If multiplying, say, nine and eight, do you not hear the sing-song times table entry you learnt as a child: "Nine-eights-are-seventy-two"?

I do. If I see 8x7, I tend to mentally commute it to 7x8 because "seven-eights-are-fifty-six" seems to scan better.
Sometimes the answer pops up audibly, a lot of times it shows up as a way to get the right answer from something else. I sucked at memorizing, so I don't have the whole list available to recite. Like 9*8 doesn't usually pop up as a memorized "nine times eight equals 72." Usually, 9*9=81 visually shows up, with a non-vocalized "but take 9 away to get 72," and I see this whole process with numbers changing.

Also, if I'm doing a series of multiplications, then the answer may not ever be vocalized. The answer just goes to my fingers: See 9*9 on paper, and fingers write 81 without vocalization.

SAme with programming. When I write code, there isn't normally a stage where I think in english "Need a loop, variable x, do this task." It just rolls out my fingers into the keyboard as the appropriate code.
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Old 22nd January 2007, 08:48 AM   #15
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Originally Posted by andyandy View Post
i wonder if it's appropriate to look at savants - who seem to have the ability to *think* in purely non-linguistic terms beyond normal human capacities....
watching an interview with one fellow he described how he saw each number from 1-1000 in a different geometric shape/colour and any conflation of those shapes/colours would lead to the answer to a particular arithmetic question......
This is a guy you are talking about Daniel Tammet - here is his web site

http://www.optimnem.co.uk/

As you said he has emotion attached to each number from 1 to 1000 (I think it may have been up to 10, 000), so he more "feels" (hurt, love, etc) a number when thinking about it instead of just thinking the number "3"
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Old 22nd January 2007, 10:24 AM   #16
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Originally Posted by andyandy View Post
ok - i'm thinking now....and it's in English..... i'm thinking in words....


if i didn't have any language ability, how would that affect my ability to think?
You've got me thinking here about the way I think. If I'm listening to someone speak French (or reading French) I think in French and if I'm listening to someone speak English (or reading...) I think in English, but what about when my brain is just idling? I have the impression that it's not word-related and just coalesces into words when I'm about to say something, but the more I think about it the more difficult it gets to recreate those conditions and see what's happening.

My head hurts.
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Old 22nd January 2007, 11:58 AM   #17
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Originally Posted by andyandy View Post
if i didn't have any language ability, how would that affect my ability to think?
I'm surprised no one has yet brought up Genie.

If you didn't have any language ability, you would probably be a lot like her.
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Old 23rd January 2007, 12:49 AM   #18
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Butting in - I know a little about this...

There has been quite a lot of research in this area. The question in the OP boils down to something that has been well-established only in the past few years - that virtually all memories and thought processes involve "auditory codes".

"Code" is a cognitive psych term for the neural pathways that are altered/used to processes information (thought/perception). It's not difficult to show with creative experimental design that language-based codes can't be avoided.

The answer to "what if someone has no language" isn't relevant because all humans seem to have it. Where no language exists, people actually invent one. [ETA: I'm talking about normal brains, here, not developmentally-disabled or damaged.] Our brains are highly specialized to process language; it's not an extraordinary conclusion.

-- ICBS... Everywhere...

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Old 20th March 2007, 06:59 PM   #19
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Originally Posted by simon dalton View Post
I've always wonder, do deaf people think in sign language? That is, as we think in words do they think in hand signs
AS much was we talk in their sleep, they sign in their sleep. As much as beginning hearing readers need to hear themselves pronounce their words to understand text, beginning deaf readers need to sign to comprehend text.

I had a student who fractured his left arm and couldn't sign with it. It slightly impaired his reading comprehension for the duration of his injury.

(I teach deaf students by the way)
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Old 21st March 2007, 08:26 AM   #20
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Originally Posted by shuyun View Post
AS much was we talk in their sleep, they sign in their sleep. As much as beginning hearing readers need to hear themselves pronounce their words to understand text, beginning deaf readers need to sign to comprehend text.

I had a student who fractured his left arm and couldn't sign with it. It slightly impaired his reading comprehension for the duration of his injury.

(I teach deaf students by the way)
interesting - do you know of any comparatives between ease of language aquisition based on physical rather than verbal cues? Would it take more time to teach a child to sign than to express themselves verbally?

and welcome to the forum
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Old 21st March 2007, 08:03 PM   #21
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There is a book Nobody Nowhere written by Donna Williams, an autistic, in which she describes her experience in in teaching herself to talk and understand speech. She said she figured out that the noises people were making were a form of communication and first taught herself to make noises ("baa, baa, baa") and then form words and finally to carry on a conversation. It is a very moving story and the interview she did with Peter Gzowski on CBC Radio's Morningside had a few 100,000s of people in tears (including me).

Her experience, at least, shows that thought is possible without the use of learned symbology.
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Old 23rd March 2007, 12:05 AM   #22
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Originally Posted by andyandy View Post
interesting - do you know of any comparatives between ease of language aquisition based on physical rather than verbal cues? Would it take more time to teach a child to sign than to express themselves verbally?

and welcome to the forum
I am not so sure about existing comparative studies.

But based on studies on infant signing plus primates taught a limited sign language I would say it takes less time to learn to sign. Of course that's under the assumption that you are teaching/learning ASL and not C-sign. (ASL is more semantic in its leanings, while C-sign is more grammatical.)

Owing to the semantic empahsis on ASL (and other sign languages based on it) "Go home me" "I go home" "home me go" all make perfect sense in ASL. It would take less time to teach a child to sign simply because finger dexterity is earlier developed than control of the speech apparatus. Besides much sign is insticntive like "eat", and "drink"

The soft state of the hard palate gives the child the common "childish" quality to their speech and glottals (k and hard g sounds) are harder to learn than common consonants like fricatives (f, v) and plosives (p, b, d, t).

But sign language is a good starting point for word-concept corespondences which is one of the major functions of language. On the same token sign language is easier learned by hearing speakers who already have an established language since most of the semiotics in sign are readilly understood if explained by an experienced signer.

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Old 23rd March 2007, 02:22 PM   #23
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Brains differ. Minds differ. I think in words. Some people think in pictures.

I assume picture thinking came first. Yet we are very bad at communicating visual data. (Ask any policeman).

However, when I pay attention to my mind, I'm aware that there before I formalise a decision in words, there is a much faster , semi conscious thought process going on in the background- so fast that I often know the answer to a question before the questioner has finished asking it- but it may take me two minutes to verbalise the answer.
I do not know if that semiconscious thought is verbal. I doubt it.
Strictly as a metaphor, it seems my mind communicates in BASIC, but processes in machine code. There may be several levels in between. Where they start being verbal I don't know.
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Old 23rd March 2007, 11:44 PM   #24
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Quote:
"What would life be like," wonders Oliver Sacks in his foreword to this intriguing story, "for a languageless man," a human being "deprived of what all the rest of us take for granted, deprived of the essentially human birthright of language?" When she took a temporary job as an interpreter for the deaf for a southern California community college class, Schaller met such a person. "Ildefonso" (as she calls him here)--27 years old, bright, deaf, and an illegal alien from Mexico--had never been exposed to proper sign language and was unaware of the myriad possibilities of language. The story of how Schaller patiently and painstakingly worked with him to bring him to the point of grasping, for the first time, the meaning of a sign and of recognizing a single signed word is truly inspiring.
I haven't read this book but I vaguely recall hearing about this case years ago:
A Man Without Words
http://www.amazon.ca/Man-Without-Words-Schaller/dp/0520202651

Also see this NY Times article dated Feb. 3, 1991:
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpag...51C0A967958260

However, some have theorized that Idelfonso wasn't completely without language. They say the "gestures" he and his deaf brother had developed on their own was enough of a "proto "-sign language that set up enough of the appropriate neural activity in his brain to enable him to learn a more fully developed language in his late 20s.
http://tafkac.org/medical/language_and_deafness.html

Even so, I suspect that that Idelfonso and others like him are probably as close as we can get in this day and age to a human without language.
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Old 24th March 2007, 05:39 PM   #25
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I couldn't find a quote, but Orwell talked about the notion that without a word, the idea doesn't exist in 1984.

I used to interpret for the Deaf--still certified.

The description of simultaneous interpretation that I've always heard is to take in the content in one form, strip the form, and then render the content into another form. (I think these aren't the correct terms I'm using. It's been a while.) So I guess that state where you have the meaning independent of either language is "thought without words".

To add to what's already been said about ASL, in ASL the "sign" (hand shape, orientation and position) is really the linguistic equivalent of a "word". I don't think there is, therefore, a difference between learning a language from "physical" cues vs "verbal" cues. (In fact, is there such a thing as a non-physical verbal cue?)

ASL does have its own syntax, so the distinction between ASL as only semantic and various systems of signed English as grammatical isn't legitimate. (That perception arose apparently because of code shifting on the part of native signers and possibly bias on the part of linguists, but ASL has been recognized among linguists as a language for some time now.)
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Old 25th March 2007, 02:16 AM   #26
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Originally Posted by JoeTheJuggler View Post
ASL does have its own syntax, so the distinction between ASL as only semantic and various systems of signed English as grammatical isn't legitimate. (That perception arose apparently because of code shifting on the part of native signers and possibly bias on the part of linguists, but ASL has been recognized among linguists as a language for some time now.)
Yes Joe I agree, modifiers exist in the face and intensity of the sign too, and eyebrows act as punctuation marks at certain instances.

Yes it is a language. I just stated that there are leanings, not that it is entirely semantic (for ASL) etc. I wasn't talking in absolutes.
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Old 25th March 2007, 02:51 AM   #27
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Originally Posted by JoeTheJuggler View Post
I couldn't find a quote, but Orwell talked about the notion that without a word, the idea doesn't exist in 1984.
Winston & Syme discuss it in the cafeteria, but Orwell expands on it in the Appendix The Principles of Newspeak

Originally Posted by George Orwell 1984
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended.... that a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc - should be literally unthinkable.
Yeah, he was a big fan of thinking that thought needed to be structured by words.
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