Can we think without language?

We humans have the unique ability to use spoken and written language. Language helps us express complicated ideas and allows us to think about more than simply what we can experience with our senses. Perhaps we also use language to think in the way we do.

Uses of language

Whether it is spoken or written, language lets us communicate ideas to other people. We can discuss things, agree or disagree with other people’s ideas, and come up with new ideas of our own. We use language to communicate with ourselves, too— having a kind of “inner conversation” where we discuss ideas with ourselves in our minds.

Thinking and reasoning

The word “think” means many different things. But there is a difference between having a thought or feeling, and using reasoning—thinking about something rationally. For example, we can think that something tastes good, but that is not the same as thinking through a problem. This kind of rational thought is almost impossible without some form of language.

Thinking in pictures

There are some things that we can think about without using language. For example, when we imagine a machine and how it works, we usually think visually, in pictures. Pictures are often more useful than language to think about things we can see or touch. But pictures cannot communicate abstract ideas such as goodness or fairness. It is difficult to express a complex idea, such as “Jim won’t come if it is raining,” in a picture. To think about these more complex things, we need language.

How do deaf people think?

People who have been deaf from birth learn language differently than people who can hear. They cannot easily learn
spoken language, but can learn sign language, and to read and write. Deaf people may not have the sounds of words in their heads when they have a conversation, or even an internal conversation, but they do use a language. They use this soundless form of language to reason, just as hearing people use spoken language.

Limits of language

Without language, our thinking would be restricted to the things we experience through our senses. Language allows us to use our reasoning. But there are things that we cannot express with language—things we haven’t experienced and we don’t have words for. It is difficult to think about things we have no language for. People living in a desert, for example, might not have a word for “snow” in their language. Without a word for it, they would find it difficult to express the idea of snow if they came across it.

Learning language

Most of the time, we use language without thinking about it. It seems to come naturally, and at a very early age. Philosopher and psychologist Noam Chomsky (1928–) says that humans are born with a unique natural ability to learn language. He has pointed out that a kitten exposed to exactly the same language and environment as a baby would never pick up language in the way the baby would—learning language is uniquely human.

Do animals use language?

Animals are not able to use words like humans. They do, however, have ways of communicating with each other, using sounds and signs to communicate ideas such as “danger” or “food.” Some people say that this type of communication is not really language, since it cannot be used to express complicated ideas.

We  might have our instinct telling us simple things and warning us to stay or get our of trouble. But to think about complicated things we seem to need language. How do you use language?

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