Thinking without language?

In many ways, I think language makes us who we are. Where would we be without at least some form of language or communication?We talked in class yesterday about cognition and language and how language makes our cognitive processes unique from any other organism. But I’m still struggling to imagine cognition, specifically thinking, without language. Can we consciously think without a language?

Whenever I think, I think in words. Whether it’s an episodic, semantic, or working memory, it’s all words! For example, when I remember an event, I remember the location, who was there, and what I was doing, but my thoughts about all of these are in words. There is of course a visual component, but even still, while I’m picturing the location, I’m naming it too. How would I think without a language and some form of speech? Would my thoughts be the same?

I remember when I returned from my semester in France, I really struggled with English during the first few days. I was in such a routine of thinking and speaking in French that transitioning back to English was actually quite difficult. I remember that word placement was especially challenging and I would often mix up the order of adjectives and nouns, which is different in some situations in French. My thoughts were in French and were being translated in correctly into English gibberish.

I thought of this anecdote in class yesterday and it made me realize that it doesn’t matter what language our thoughts are in, we’re always thinking in a language. I can’t imagine my thoughts without a language. Can you?


5 thoughts on “Thinking without language?

  1. I agree that I can’t imagine what it would be like to not have language in my thoughts. But, I definitely have periods of thought that are language-less! Maybe this is related to the type of learner you are, I’m definitely a hands-on/visual learner and struggle with auditory learning.


  2. When you think about how a puzzle fits together do you hear yourself think? Because I don’t. I just manipulate the pieces in my head. When I think about how an electrical circuit works, I don’t think in words like “ok, now the diode will rectify the signal”, I literally see and feel (sometimes I even like to make motions with my hands to help think) what the the electrical current is doing. So in that way I think without language. But then of course I have to translate that result into words so that I can communicate it to others.


  3. Now I don’t condone this, really, but I have had non-lingual thoughts before. Sadly it involved dissociative drugs, but they were of the legal sort I assure you. More or less the thought is separated from the objects and actions of the thought. For example the thought of “Oh god, what have I done?!” is made into a happening of whatever incident warrants the situation. Baking a cake and thinking “Ooh, a delicious cake!” would warrant the thought of a cake being baked. Now of course this isn’t really useful in any way because nobody can simply take drugs their whole life to think this way. It would ruin both the novelty of the substance AND most importantly your entire life.


  4. It depends on the person. Personally, most of the time there are very little or no words going through my head. Language is a little more dominant some of the time, but there’s always something visual going on. My point of view, the way I see reality, the way I see time, etc., are all derived from a purely visual/emotional state and are nearly impossible to describe using words. It is extremely hard to translate what I see and know into words. It’s easier to think with pictures than it is with words. Thinking with words is absurdly slow for me, as opposed to thinking visually.


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