re: can deaf people think: Cecil is wrong, the evidence says so


“Can you think without language? Answer: Nope, at least not at the level humans are accustomed to.” --Cecil Adams.

The above was a response to what langauge deaf people think in (and in the theme of the above, I will dangle my particles).

The ability to think is not at all dependent on language, though language’s dependence on one’s ability to think often confuses people.

People think in what the psycholinguiust Stephen Pinker refers to as “mentalese,” and not, as is often thought, in spoken language (or sign language). Pinker is widely regarded as one of the top scholars in the field; I refer you to his excellent “The Language Instinct” for further reading.

A simple example to show the difference between mentalese and spoken (or sign) language: have you ever wanted to express a thought that, but were stumped as to who to express it clearly? The ideas are clear in one’s mind, but the words chosen to express oneself are unsatisfactory. This commonplace example shows that thought is not dependent on language.

The fact that many people create internal monolgues using language creates an appearance of dependence, but overwhelming evidence proves that the two are indeed seperate.

Keep up the good work Cecil, and please do check Pinker’s work.

dave rosen

In reference to this column by Cecil,

True enough, as has been successfully demonstrated in previous threads in this forum. Several other dopers chimed in to criticize Cecil’s assertion that thought requires language. I would post a link, but I’m hesitant to tax the servers with a search on a busy Friday night.

By the way, welcome to the boards, PTtheorist! I hope you enjoy your stay.

I’ll echo that welcome, PTheorist, glad to have you with us.

When you start a thread, it’s helpful to other readers to provide a link to the column you’re commenting on. I’ve edited your post to put that link up front. amore very kindly provided it, but since your initial post is a little long, I thought it would be good to have the link at the top.

No biggie, you’ll know for next time. Again, welcome!

That’s not so clear-cut. All you have shown is that you can create thoughts without language. Like you can look at two blue objects and notice that they’re the same color without the need for a monologue. But that’s not the same as showing that all thought is independent of language (Cecil does do a disfavor by suggesting that non-linguistic thought is inferior: “not at the same level”. That’s a value judgement). The commonplace example you provide is typical of when you are struck by a perceptual metaphor, like you notice a pattern in your senses that can’t be accurately conveyed within the constraints of a language. But for most input which is acquired via language (speech/writing), your ability to manipulate or innovate those concepts seems (to me) to be, to an unknown but noticeable extent , based on your ability to manipulate the symbols by which you represent them. And for a lot of concepts, those manipulation tools are influenced by language,

Well, I tend to “think in English,” & have since childhood. I developed a habitual process of trying to describe my thoughts in words at all times, but I often consider it a somewhat compulsive habit that I would rather turn off. Other times, I find myself struggling to verbalise my thoughts, whether trying to find a word where I have a concept but feel I’ve forgotten the word, or even trying to come up with a sentence. I find that saying words doesn’t help me think new thoughts, that my skill in language allows my thoughts to be tied to form. Linguistic syntax is an aid in description, analysis & memory. If I could think in a more compact symbolism, I might be quicker & smarter.

If one could see my thoughts—if one could see my thoughts, this could be easily answered. :stuck_out_tongue:

But while typing my reply, since I was thinking about how I think, I noticed the way I was thinking right then. It might be illuminating to watch me compose that last reply (or this one), looking for the right words, going back to rephrase, filling in details. Language allows me to converse in the abstract with amazing precision. I don’t always think in syntax, nor in complex abstractions, but I can, because I know an appropriate language.

That’s a rather simplistic example. It demonstrates, indeed, that one’s conscious thought is not always couched in terms of a specific language, but it doesn’t support nearly the weight you’re putting on it. It may well be that a person doesn’t know how to put a particular thought into a particular language; but it’s not reasonable to conclude that the internal thinking is done in ‘mentalese’. Two different paths this could lead one down:

  1. Language use exists at a subconscious or preconscious level, besides at the conscious level. So the idea could have been developed unconsciously out of English linguistic concepts, despite the fact that the conscious mind cannot ‘decode’ the idea back to it’s roots.

  2. The symbolic structure of the mind is not in a strict sense ‘linguistic’. The symbols that are supported on the neural structure are, perhaps, only perceptual indicators that have been co-opted by (to borrow from another Cecil column) a ‘memetic’ level of structure. This structure allows expanded use of the existing system for developing abstract thoughts; however, while those thoughts occur in a pseudo-linguistic but non-natural language form, they could never come to exist unless the subject already had been ‘infected’ by the memes via the medium of language. So the idea may not be directly dependent on the use of a natural language, it is indirectly dependent on language-had the subject never learned to speak and read, she never could have come up with that particular idea, despite her inability to articulate it.

I’m not going to dive heavily into this-there’s thirty years of wrangling between linguists, psychologists, and philosophers about this subject. I just wanted to point out that the only version of ‘thinking is in natural language’ that PT’s example specifically disproves is the one where you can cut open someone’s head and ‘read their mind’ by looking at the little letters printed in their brain …

(Oh, and one little ‘food for thought’ question: what’s Mentalese for ‘airplane’? And when did this word get added to the Mentalese lexicon-before or after the word was invented in English?)

Your conclusion doesn’t logically follow from your thought-expirement here, I don’t think. You’ve only shown that people who have learned language can have complex (possibly non-verbal thought). The question isn’t whether non-verbal thought exists, but whether it is possible to develop it without language.

By the way, I don’t think it’s necessarily that a person is fumbling to communicate the uncommunicatable (yikes. speaking of looking for the right word…), but that he or she is fumbling to find the <i>best</i> way to communicate the idea; a condition that may require understanding of language.

The accounts of feral children have shown that early introduction to either language or human culture is probably necessary to develop intelligence. The problem is that no one has been able to show that either one or the other is more important. Feral children have grown up in a deprived environment that also included no exposure to language. There has never, to my knowledge, been a situation where a child was exposed to a stimulating environment that did not also include some language learning. The only way to find out for sure which is more important is to find or create a situation where one or the other is an isolated factor. There are obvious ethical and practical problems with this.

Deaf children sometimes are under-stimulated until their disability is discovered, which could lead to some delay in development or even permanent impairment. Another problem with making judgements about the quality of thought demonstrated by a deaf person is that they may not think in the same way as hearing people. Intelligence tests are sometimes inaccurate due to cultural biases, or have problems testing very creative people who find novel ways of solving problems. It is possible that due to their disability, the thought processes of deaf people are different enough to cause problems in accurately measuring their intelligence using standard tests.

I dunno, but it seems that this thread assumes that all thought processes are equated to that little voice you think you hear inside your head. I recall reading that Einstein did not begin talking until the age of four and it was suggested that his appearent disability contributed to his abstract thinking ability as demonstrated by his thought experiments he used to formulate his theories.

I can identify several abstract, non-verbal thought processes in my own head that either work better or worse than other peoples. For example,
[li] I could never win a spelling bee because I can not spell even simple words without writing them down where I can see them. [/li][li]I could never figure out how the parts of a mechanical thing fits together unless I take the thing apart myself. [/li][li]Don’t waste your time describing something to me, I just can’t picture it. [/li][li]On the plus side, I seem better than most of my geek peers when it comes to doing real-time software. For some reason I can better conceptualize how asynchronous code should work. [/li][/ul]

Einstein’s verbal skills might of been lacking but no one would question his intelligence. I’m not the brightest bulb but I’m not a dummy either. Intelligence should not be operationally defined by how fast one can add up a set of 4 digit numbers or picking out the next abstract shape in series or your skill at debating an issue. It should be seen as a measure of adaptability, especially to change.

The folks who created the very notion of intelligence tests were biased by their orientation towards verbal thinking. I strongly suspect that the little voice I hear talking in my head is really just an illusion. It’s created as an accidental by-product of the neurons firing in that multi-processor computer with the 10 billion single bit CPUs that I carry around in my thick skull.

I try my best to ignore that voice. :wink:

BTW - Have you ever noticed how sometimes you can actually do some activities better when you turn off or ignore that little critter you hear in your head? For me. my best software gets written when I let my fingers do the work. I sorta just sit back and watch the process. The code seems to write itself. This only seems to occur when I’m in the debug loop. I focus on the bugs while my fingers hack out the solutions. I know that may sound weird but thats how it seems to me. What’s weirder is that when go back and look at the code, it seems almost unfamilar, like it was written by someone else. :confused: Ya know how athletes talk about being “in the Zone”? I guess it’s sorta like that. Just curious if anybody else has other examples of this phenomenon

I remember hearing somewhere that in ancient Rome, only the most intelligent/educated people could perform basic math operations like multiplication and division, due to the limitations of roman numerals.

While language may not be required for thinking in its most basic sense, obviously some thoughts require the ability to organize and manipulate raw, lower-level ideas. Language provides a framework for this.

Say, rather, those people who did enough math on a regular basis that they learned how to multiply and divide on an abacus. Education is not necessarily the point.

Recent evidence that might boost the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.