If you're deaf, what language do you think in?

Do we think in a particular language?
29 January 2019



Bree got in touch to ask:

What language do deaf people think in?

Mariana Campos has been on the case...


Mariana - We put this question on our forum and one of the answers came from Doug, who says he’s profoundly deaf and thinks in associations and pictures. He doesn’t think "I'm going to get a glass of water", he just tends to visualize the glass of water and associate it with thirst. To elaborate on this, we got in touch with Dr Mairead MacSweeney, who’s the director of the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London.

Mairead - The answer to this question very much depends on the type of communication the deaf person uses in their daily life.Their language choices and preferences can depend on many different factors. For example, whether they were born deaf or became deaf later in life; how much useful information they can hear from either hearing aids or cochlear implants; and whether they were exposed to a sign language early. Sign languages are interesting because they are different in different countries. Deaf people are most likely to think in their dominant, their most used language, which could be a signed or spoken language.

Mariana - But how exactly are the thoughts shaped in their minds?

Mairead - When deaf people think in sign language, they report having a motoric feeling of themselves signing. This could be thought of as ‘inner sign’ in the same way that hearing people report ‘inner speech’. Others think in spoken language, either that they might be able to feel the mouth movements of speech, or they can visualise lip patterns, or in some cases ‘hear’ the speech. This auditory imagery is most likely to reflect their own auditory experience of speech. Deaf people have also reported switching between imagining themselves communicating and imagining perceiving, or watching the communication of others. Some deaf people have even reported that they think in written English, describing visualising subtitles or Star Wars text, disappearing off into the distance.

Mariana - That would certainly make everyday tasks more interesting! Deaf people also report thinking in different languages depending on what they are thinking about.

Mairead - So, a deaf person who uses sign language at home with their family might think of a shopping list in sign language, but if they use speech at work, they might be more likely to report thinking about their work-related tasks in speech. The deaf population is very diverse. It is these differences in language backgrounds and personal experience that affect which languages they acquire and therefore what language they think in.


Mmm The question Conrad and Kyle tried to answer in the 1970’s.
Amongst other things the research showing that Deaf people use the Auditory Cortex for Language processing and many have up to 200% more Peripheral Vision than average hearing person says lots...... but not how they think nor where it is processed and stored.
Lots to find out really.
Many thoughts are beyond words, beyond language as it is classically understood.( visual, sensory, gestural, audible etc)
What Deaf Sign Languages do now that we can record and document it is........ Hopefully
....... Question afresh what a language is and how thoughts are made, used and stored etc.
Before research into Sign Languages using early Film most languages were weighed and measured in terms of written prose really . Long way to go.
I used Kelly’s Construct Theory (Rep Grid) to try and answer your question. I used a Visualised rating system and found that when Kelly’s ideas were applied ....they worked with Deaf adults and children. The work was not published and the University lent my research to someone who......never returned it. 30years ago.
I worked with the Deaf for 37years.

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