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TexasDude's avatar

If you grow up with absolutely no exposure to language, how do you think?

Asked by TexasDude (25229 points ) September 11th, 2010

Seems like a simple enough question, at first glance, but it’s really a difficult theoretical issue to address.

Think about it… nearly all of our thoughts that aren’t strictly image-based are automatically formed and analyzed using our own language-based “internal voice.”

So if someone was left on an island at birth and grew up with zero exposure to any type of language, how would their thoughts be organized and interpreted? Could they even functionally think at all? How would their memories be formed and recalled?

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40 Answers

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

I think about this ALL the time, no lie. It is one of those questions that I’ve never been able to answer for myself… though I’ve never attempted to research it, either. My best guess is that all thoughts would be in images.

TexasDude's avatar

@TheOnlyNeffie, I sortof think of it in terms of having no mouth, but needing to scream. It’s actually a very frightening idea, once you really start to mull over it.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard I really wasn’t joking, I think about this all the time. You’re completely right, it is scary.
Sometimes I try to view it from my dog’s perspective. I know she isn’t literally thinking “Yay, I want that treat!”... so I always try to imagine what really is going on in her brain.

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

I don’t know. I suppose this link would be relevant, though some reports are considered suspect. One of the better documented cases was that Oxana Malaya who was raised by feral dogs from the age of thee and whose vocabulary was limited to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when she was discovered by the authorities.

TexasDude's avatar

@TheOnlyNeffie, oh I know! It’s impossible to comprehend, because of how powerful and pervasive our inner voice is in determining our thoughts. You can try and imagine what it’s like to think without using language, but then you wind up using your own language skills to get in the mindset.

@hiphiphopflipflapflop, great links. It mentions that just about all documented cases have had severe mental impairments, which is just what I would expect.

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

Actually there is someone who probably have a great deal of insight into pre-verbal thinking: Temple Grandin.

TexasDude's avatar

@hiphiphopflipflapflop, that’s excellent, thank you.

KatawaGrey's avatar

Just an interesting thought: Do you suppose people who have been deaf from birth wonder how hearing folks can communicate well without the use of sign language?

Trillian's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard This is a great question. If I weren’t so tired, I’d try to have a conversation with you about it. This touches on something that I believe which is; that the thought process cannot be complete without articulation. Here’s a link, and another to more links

TexasDude's avatar

@KatawaGrey, I have wondered that. I have some friends who are ASL majors. I’ll ask them when I get the chance.

@Trillian thanks! I’m tired as hell too, and that’s probably why my responses are sort of half-assed. Thanks for the links. I agree with your statement about the thought process as well.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

What about Homo erectus? They were not able to speak, and fossils show that the position of the larynx would have left them with limited ability to make a range of sounds in general. However, they made fire, cooked their food, hunted and made stone tools. So there was some kind of functional thought process without language.
@Trillian Great links, thanks for sharing.

TexasDude's avatar

@TheOnlyNeffie, that’s what I was thinking. They had to form some type of language to cooperate on hunts and that sort of thing. How did they get to that point, though? Angry grunting until they got their points across?

KatawaGrey's avatar

Now, to try to attempt to answer the question.

I think the first issue is defining what is language. If you mean purely human language, the idea does not seem so scary or strange to me. How does a blind person think if not in pictures? Feelings, sounds, textures and the like.

However, if by “language” you mean sounds and gestures meant to communicate something, I do not think that humans indeed, any complex animal are capable of having no exposure to language. Many forms of communication are instinctive. For example, crying out in pain is not a learned behavior, but is instinctive. The same is true of touching. Humans find comfort in physical contact, and that is not learned either.

I would think that a human who grew up without human language of any form would think only in pictures, feelings, and sounds picked up in nature.

This is a fabulous question, btw.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard I don’t know if there have been studies, so I can’t say for sure. It makes you wonder. Animals certainly communicate without language, at some point we did, too. In fact.. we still do, with body language and facial expressions, and even sounds that are not words or language related. It still makes it very difficult to imagine a thought process without those things.

TexasDude's avatar

@KatawaGrey, thanks, dear. I meant “sounds and gestures meant to communicate” by language, for the record, but human language will suffice as well.

KatawaGrey's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard: Ah, okay, just wanted clarification. So, are you excluding humans raised by animals?

TexasDude's avatar

@KatawaGrey, hmm… didn’t think of that. They would be exposed to animal communication, so would they think “animal” thoughts? I guess for the sake of argument, we can include them, since the number of documented cases is so small.

Trillian's avatar

@TheOnlyNeffie Animals do have language. They use posture, body laguage and vocalizations. This has been studied and documented for all sorts of species.
Experts say that children are not able to conceptuaize abstract concepts until about age 8 – 10. Yet when my son was five, we were going down the highway and the hatch came open. I just kept going and he said that we should stop and close it. I told him that mommie didn’t want to stop on the highway, it wasn’t safe. He said; “But if we leave it open, it will be like running with an open umbrella and it will slow us down.”
I maintain that he was able to conceptualize this abstract becaue he had a very large vocabulary.
I have a lot more to say on the subject but I haven’t finished watching the falling man yet and I need to carry my rickety old ass to bed at some point…

KatawaGrey's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard: I was about to type an answer but @Trillian said what I was going to say about animal communication.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

@Trillian well I did mention body language and sound, in fact, I said that applies to humans as well. I suppose I meant verbal language.

Trillian's avatar

@TheOnlyNeffie Yes. At some point I will correctly read things before I go off half cocked. (no pun intended, I’m sure they have their own language too!) I know that cetaceans have a very rich and extensive language that differs from species to species.
If you ever gt a chance, read A Deeper Sea, I beliee the author is Jablakov.

Coloma's avatar

@KatawaGrey

Yes, only pictures, sounds and feelings, just like animals.

In a way, with all the studying and wisdom I have gleaned over the years regarding thought and egoic mind, quite frankly, I think it would be a blissful state of ‘being.’

To simply be, exist, without all the mental machinations….I’d say that state of being would be about as enlightened as one could naturally come. lol

Perhaps those that claim mental impairment under such circumstances are wrong, it is they that are mentally impaired by being controlled by random, repetitive thought.

People go to ashrams for that experience. lol

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@KatawaGrey @Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard From The Straight Dope

Dear Cecil:

In what language do deaf people think? I think in English, because that’s what I speak. But since deaf people cannot hear, they can’t learn how to speak a language. Nevertheless, they must think in some language. Would they think in English if they use sign language and read English? How would they do that if they’ve never heard the words they are signing or reading pronounced? Or maybe they just see words in their head, instead of hearing themselves?

— Cathy, Malvern, Pennsylvania

You’re on the right track, kid. But first a little detour. Your speculations raise a larger question: Can you think without language? Answer: Nope, at least not at the level humans are accustomed to. That’s why deafness can have far more serious consequences than blindness, developmentally speaking. The blind suffer many hardships, not the least of which is the inability to read in the usual manner. But even those sightless from birth acquire language by ear without difficulty in infancy, and having done so lead relatively ordinary lives. A congenitally deaf child isn’t so lucky: unless someone realizes very early that he’s not talking because he can’t hear, his grasp of communication may never progress beyond the rudiments.

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2486/in-what-language-do-deaf-people-think

TexasDude's avatar

@papayalily, that was my initial thought. I’ll get back to you when I talk to some of my ASL friends.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard Oh, do tell me what they say because I actually just did a teeny paper on the subject for my ASL class, so I’m totally interested.

jerv's avatar

This is where I am actually glad to be somewhat autistic. Most people actually think in words and have to think a little to put pictures to those words. Autistic people are the opposite.

Dr. Temple Grandin has HFA, or High Functioning Autism. Aspies (those with Aspergers Syndrome, like myself) have better language skills but similar thought processes; we are still very visual thinkers who have an oddly strained relationship with language.

See, language is used to communicate, and no matter what sort of ASD one has, people “on the spectrum” have difficulty communicating even if we have good language skills.

ratboy's avatar

Here’s another take on thinking without language excerpted from Keith Devlin’s paper A mathematician reflects on the useful and reliable illusion of reality in mathematics:

Mathematical thought

What is the nature of mathematical thought? Although I have been a mathematician for
forty years, I am still not clear exactly what the nature of the mathematical thought
process is.
I am sure it is not linguistic, or at least not totally so, and probably not mostly so.
Mathematicians do not think in sentences; at least not most of the time. The precise
logical prose you find in mathematical books and papers is an attempt to communicate
the results of mathematical thought. It rarely resembles the thought process itself.
I am in remarkably good company in having this view of mathematical thinking. For
instance, in 1945, the distinguished French mathematician Jacques Hadamard
published a book titled The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, in which
he cited the views of many mathematicians on what it feels like to do mathematics. Many
of them insist that they do not use language to think about mathematics. Albert Einstein,
for instance, wrote:

Words and language, whether written or spoken, do not seem to play any part in
my thought processes. The psychological entities that serve as building blocks for
my thought are certain signs or images, more or less clear, that I can reproduce
and recombine at will.

Hadamard himself makes the same point:

I insist that words are totally absent from my mind when I really think . . . even after
reading or hearing a question, every word disappears the very moment that I am
beginning to think it over.

Of particular relevance to my thesis are the mathematicians’ descriptions of the way they
arrived at the solutions to problems they had been working on. Time and again, the
solution came at a quite unexpected moment, when the person was engaged in some
other activity and was not consciously thinking about the problem. Moreover, in that
inspirational moment the whole solution suddenly fell into place, as if the pieces of a
huge jigsaw puzzle had been dropped onto the floor and miraculously landed as a
complete picture. The mathematician “saw” the solution and instinctively knew it was
correct.
No language is involved in this process. Indeed, with a problem for which the solution is
fairly complex, it might take the mathematician weeks or even months to spell out (in
linguistic form) the step-by-step logical argument that constitutes the official solution to
the problem — the proof of the result.
So if mathematical thought is not linguistic, if mathematicians do not think in words (or
algebraic symbols), how exactly does it feel to a mathematician thinking about
mathematics?

TexasDude's avatar

@jerv, interesting. Thanks for your unique perspective. Do you have trouble organizing or interpreting thoughts that are language based?

@ratboy, also interesting, although I doubt that words are truly absent from Mr. Hdamard’s mind when he thinks, like he says they are.

jerv's avatar

Only when dealing with things I can’t translate into picture form.

Often, my biggest issue is translating the pictures in my head into words. A few years of hanging around Q&A sites has helped (plenty of practice) but I still find myself confusing a lot of people or giving them the wrong idea, which I take as a sign that I didn’t translate those mental images properly.

TexasDude's avatar

@jerv, the practice must have worked, because I would never have guessed you have any sort of communication problem. Your posts are always concise, make sense, and are well put-together.

jerv's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard Thanks. It’s taken a lot of work, and it’s nice to hear that it’s paid off :)

MRSHINYSHOES's avatar

A person would probably “think” like one of those feral children scientists sometimes discover living in the jungles. They think like little wild animals, in search of prey. Not smart, but enought to get by. Just like some obnoxious kids in our own modern society. (wink)

TexasDude's avatar

@MRSHINYSHOES, that’s kind of been the line of thinking here, especially considering the articles about feral children.

MRSHINYSHOES's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard I think language, and learning a language, is a form of education itself, it develops the brain in more ways than one. And the greater the complexity of words learned, the more intelligent the child. Which speaks a lot for a lot of stupid, potty-mouthed kids that I see and encounter everyday. Lol—wink.

jerv's avatar

@MRSHINYSHOES That all depends on how you define “intelligence”. I knew how to use a screwdriver correctly well before my first word (age:18 months). Yes, I managed to “break” a dining room table in such a manner that is could be reassembled with ease.

MRSHINYSHOES's avatar

@jerv——

Without language, one becomes isolated, anti-social, and silent. That’s where the word “dumb” comes from. People who don’t use language, who don’t express themselves well to others, like most misfit teenagers (lol), are essentially “dummies”.

jerv's avatar

@MRSHINYSHOES It is possible to be dumb and still be intelligent.

MRSHINYSHOES's avatar

@jerv Er, you’re right jerv.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

I suppose they would think in pictures and not in language. I often wondered this about my cat. I would guess that when he dreams, he sees a mental movie of himself running after a mouse or bird. I don’t know if animals do this when they are awake, though. I don’t think they amuse themselves or plan things by thinking, the way we do.

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