Science Questions

In what language do deaf people think?

Sun, 10th Jan 2010

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Question

Gerardo Garzón, via the Naked Scientists Facebook Page asked:

Hi, I've got a question about deaf people. How do they think? I mean, how to they make ideas on their minds? For example, my native language is Spanish, so most of my thoughts are made in that language. But how does this work for deaf people? Does every person have his own code?

Answer

We put this question to Mairead McSweeney:

 

Mairead -   Yes, so just as he thinks in Spanish and I think in English, so if you're a native user of British Sign Language, you would think in British Sign Language.  So then the question really is, well, what’s the nature of that thought?  What’s it like?  And so, it can be visual or it could be manual, so motoric, and so we can use different methods in the lab to try and get at that question by using different interference techniques.  And so, it seems to be a bit of both.  There seems to be more weight towards a motor representation that people use in their minds and their thinking in sign language.

 

Chris -   So they would literally see themselves doing the thing rather than think it through talking to themselves doing it like I might for example.

 

Mairead -   Well, no.  That would be a visual representation but there’s more weight towards the motoric representation would be more like feeling themselves do it.  It’s just like you feel you hear yourself speak, if you like.  A motor representation of the movement would be the type of representation that they might be bringing up when thinking.

 

Diana -   So it’s just like imagining eating chocolate in my head.  I can feel the sensations.

 

Mairead -   Yes, exactly!

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If you need a language to think in, how do you ever learn one?
Also, how does anyone come up with new ideas?
Since there wasn't a word "typewriter" in any language before the machine was invented, how did anyone think of one in order to invent it?
I don't believe that people think in any language as such; they think in thoughts. Bored chemist, Wed, 13th Jan 2010

I was thinking about this and it's amazing how language-dominated thoughts are though isn't it?

As soon as we know words we use them to think... chris, Wed, 13th Jan 2010

In what language do you think about the word that's "on the tip of your tongue"?
Bored chemist, Wed, 13th Jan 2010

A whole bunch of synonyms; I actually experience the "feel" of the word in a visceral way; I can almost taste it; it's almost like synaesthesia; bizarre. chris, Wed, 13th Jan 2010

Why would anyone assume that one has to think in a language anyway? Do you really think in language, rather than form the thoughts into language. That might be a hinderance. I think in two languages, or form thoughts into two languages depending on which language I have to speak; my mothertongue is sort of declining in that way, since I can't express my thoughts in it as well as I express myself in English; I often replace english words for complex ideas that I have no words for in my first tongue. That doesn't mean I'm stupid or unthinking, that just means I don't have words for the concepts I'm thinking about. Elastic, Wed, 10th Mar 2010

This is the third article I've read on this subject, but the first that helped me understand how deaf people actually think. I had the impression that they thought "with their hands," not with the feeling of hand movements (if I got that right). Anyway, it's a fascinating subject, and I do appreciate the insight provided by this article. Bette, Tue, 16th Nov 2010

Deaf people don't think or dream in languages, the same as our forebearers before they defeloped language skills. For that matter, my dog dreams and laughs and cries while doing so. As a profoundly deaf man of 61 I can assure you that our thinking process is not language based but more like associations and pictures. You don't think " I'm going to get a glass of water" you tend to visualize the glass of water and associate it with thirst. BTW, learning a language as a deaf person is hard, not because we don't hear, but because English is a convoluted language full of double meanings, unlike sign language, which is visual. Also, I know of no one who thinks in sign language, no matter what age they became deaf at. Doug, Thu, 30th Dec 2010

Wow - very interesting responses. First of all, I strongly recommend researching before even beginning to offer responses off the top of your head. Start reading Fauconnier & Turner's "The Way We Think". Second, hearing people are not qualified to make assumptions about deaf people and nor are they qualified to make decisions for them. For your info, deaf people dream in sign language. Even hearing people who learn sign language report having dreams in sign language and spoken language. However, we do not actually THINK IN LANGUAGE, BUT IN CONCEPTS. Linguistic form provides instructions for building our cognition and our conceptual mental spaces. It does not matter whether or not the language is signed or spoken as all function the same way - this is precisely the reason why ALL DEAF CHILDREN MUST BE EXPOSED TO SIGNED LANGUAGE FROM BIRTH. It provides them with the necessary cognitive development and full linguistic acquisition necessary for the subsequent literacy skills. So, before you jump into conclusions and make damaging remarks, DO YOUR RESEARCH! Professor, Fri, 28th Jan 2011

Please do a little research rather than making assumptions based on the way you think. An excellent starting point for understanding cognitive processes and language would be Turner and Fauconnier. http://markturner.org/blending.html Josh, Fri, 28th Jan 2011

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