How do we think before we can speak a language?

thoughtIt’s hard to imagine living in our world without a language, If there were no names for what’s around us or our inner thoughts, would we experience sensations, impressions and feelings in the same way? No one would argue that you couldn’t feel emotion without knowing the words to describe them, but there is a big difference between experiencing pain or joy and imagining, analysing and exploring the concepts behind our feelings

It’s no wonder our first words are such an important milestone growing up. From that point on, our parents no longer have to guess (or sniff!) what the problem is. Before then, we What resort to crying, screaming, pointing and other forms of communication to express our wants. Research suggests that babies begin to listen to the mother (sorry dads, you have to wait till later) from the womb during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy. Following birth, children are absorbing information at every possible opportunity in order to learn how to speak. After the first year, a child should know some phrases and after two years should know 50 or so simple words.

Feral children provide scientists with some interesting insights into how someone without language may feel and express emotions. Feral children that have not been exposed to language from an early age seem to be unable to speak it in later life – no matter how hard they try. Feral children have provided evidence for a hypothesis known as critical period theory, which states that a first language can only be absorbed during a key development period in the first few years of life. (Additionally, feral children are completely lacking in enculturation, meaning they lack many of the social, emotional, and physical behaviours that normal children naturally develop and learn from human interaction.)

Feral children seem to express the normal range of emotions, but it is difficult to assess the degree and complexity of their thought-life. There are two opposing schools of thought when it comes to thinking and language. The ‘language first’ theory states that thought is more or less limited by our language abilities and that certain thought processes are only possible once the subject can communicate them freely. In contrast, ‘thought first’ theories propose the idea that language is used to convey inner thoughts, rather than being necessary to form the thoughts. The truth is probably somewhere between the two extremes, although without language, thinking seems to be very simplistic: without language, it appears that children cannot develop ‘symbolic thought’ – the ability to use images and symbols to represent real objects.

Answer by Nathan Beal and Lewis Pike

Footnote: There are a handful of well documented case studies of people have not developed an understanding of a language until later life. Susan Schaller provides one such example, of Ildefonso, a deaf man who grew up with hearing parents and so was unable to learn how to sign. Ildefonso had worked out how to survive by copying people around him and it makes for a very interesting story. Read more.

Photo Credit: ssri via Compfight cc


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Article by Nathan Beal

January 30, 2015

Nathan is currently in the throes of a PhD in Computational Chemistry at the University of Manchester. When he’s not behind a computer, he’s outside enjoying the sights of the city. A fan of The Walking Dead, he has a strange apathy to all things football-related.


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