What language does a deaf person think in?

I’ve joked about having used sign language when I had no other medium of communication in Berlin. Which, of course, was false, not only because I’m terrible at miming, but much more importantly because, contrary to what people might think, sign language has nothing to do with miming. Sign language, in fact, is as versatile and as abstract as any other language; one shouldn’t even be saying ‘the’ sign language, because there are different versions (there’s the international sign language, and there’s an american version).

I’ve seen this cartoon posing a clever question from a bunch of people.

It isn’t clever just because it’s funny. It is that too, but it should also make one think about language and thought in general. This would be a nice point to say something about Steven Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct. In a chapter titled Mentalese, he explains why the notion that people ‘think in’ a certain language is not just wrong, but also absurd. The idea itself is common enough that most people implicitly accept it to be true. For example, Pinker notes George Orwell’s idea of Newspeak, a language developed by a totalitarian state that has no words for freedom, or equality and so forth… Orwell says that ‘in so far as thought is determined by words, the people who knew no language other than Newspeak would have no idea of political freedom’.

Pinker then points out that if thoughts were determined by words – any words, to say nothing of words of a particular language – one wouldn’t be able to teach a child a language to begin with, or say something when one meant something else, or coin new words, and so on. The right way to look at thought and language is that we think in an abstract mental language (mentalese), which, it turns out, is universal in human beings; a caucasian’s mentalese is the same as that of a Chinese which is same as that of an African. The conversion from mentalese to an actual language takes some learning, and it is here that deaf people have a problem.

Learning a language, at least insofar as internalizing it goes, becomes very steeply harder with age. It has been noted, for example, that people who are congenitally deaf have a hard time expressing themselves, if their deafness wasn’t discovered early enough, or if they weren’t taught sign language early enough. It may seem that this might make one think that the deaf think ‘in sign language’, but this isn’t true. Congenitally deaf people are just as intelligent as normal people in non-verbal modes of intelligence. (They have an obvious handicap, if they haven’t been taught sign language, when it comes to verbal intelligence tests).

In short, then, deaf people think in the same language that non-deaf people think in – mentalese. They just have no outlet which is as convenient as non-deaf people (and I should know, mind… I can’t mime a galloping horse, much less memorise an abstract movement for one!).


The Language Instinct is available as a Penguin Paperback (which means it’s sold truckloads of hardbound copies and they can afford to sell it really cheap now), and can be bought one of the online bookstores – I got mine from Flipkart.


15 thoughts on “What language does a deaf person think in?”

  1. Too many links, Traums… the spam sensor here has a hair trigger.

    1) The study seems too broad, and i don’t know how they controlled for, say, cultural differences; that tribe of people may have some bizarre ritual that says any sequence has to go from east to west.

    2) I didn’t watch the Fora video… internet connection at home too slow, too expensive!

    3) The animal calls thing is something Pinker discusses extensively. Yes, animals communicate. That does not make it language (or that’s at least what he says). I think I agree; ants communicate, for example… nobody suggests ants have language! So they use chemical signals instead of vocalizations, but how does that make it any less?

    4) Interesting. Quite plausible, too… evolutionary selection for better vocalization equipment.

  2. Nice post da.. finally 🙂 .

    Not on a topic done to death, but rather on a very thought provoking question, leading to re-examining what we/I understand as language.

  3. … a topic done to death Chundae! Most of my posts have been random new things (mostly from the ‘news’, now that I’m home).

    Anyway, yeah… I’ve meant to do a review of Pinker’s book for a month now. Finally, free time and opportunity.

  4. finally, I read one of your post. It’s good but not convincing enough. I guess I need to read more about it. Right now, I am thinking in mandarin 😛

  5. While we think in mentalese and pick up the rules of language culturally, I don’t see why that should prevent the language itself from affecting the thought process. For instance, what happens when we make a Freudian slip or are conscious of a grammatical mistake. And don’t vervet monkeys have an instinct for language when they give alarm calls, albeit a much cruder one? I think Pinker says Orwell’s version of Newspeak is not practical as notions of freedom exist whether or not you can express it in words or not.

  6. Your first sentence is precisely where Pinker takes traditional thinking about language head on. The rules of language are already in place… genetically, as it were.

    I don’t get how Freudian slips mean that language is affecting thought.

    Vervet monkeys have an instinct for communication! (clever rephrasing, no?), not language.

    No argument about ‘freedom won’t go away just because you take the word away’. Only that it is true for all language, and not just these two words!

  7. Croor, an interesting interview with Daniel Everett who’s written extensively on language from his anthropological work: http://boingboing.net/2012/03/26/the-grammar-of-happiness-an-i.html His work has done much to challenge the universality of language theory. I guess one way to reconcile the two opposing theories is to have a universal genotype and a populational phenotype approach to language. Both genes and their physical expression have a causal impact on each other.

  8. Surely you mean ‘both genes and their physical expression have a causal impact on the capacity for language‘… Because the physical environment having an impact on genes is otherwise called cancer. (That’s not quite true, of course – there’s lateral gene transfer and so forth, but you get my point.)

    Universal genotype coupled with culture-dependent phenotype seems right to me. It is also what Deutscher suggests.

  9. well i meant something else, but i think its best to ignore that last sentence. this w’pedia entry on phenotype explains what i meant to say quite well: “Phenotypes result from the expression of an organism’s genes as well as the influence of environmental factors and the interactions between the two.”

    So I suppose you could have similar basic structures (like voice ranges, use of verbs) but a completely different language that shapes and mirrors a COMPLETELY different social universe. In effect it would be possible to “think in a particular language”. And why not, if you live in a completely different environment. Certain peoples might not have a conception of political freedom because they lack a concept of politics itself or of unfreedom.

    Of course none of this would be watertight because of the underlying genotype, certain physical constants etc and one could possible teach such people modern concepts depending on their willingness and ability to learn.

    “mentalese” seems like a nice word for fence-sitting on this issue with a slight tilt towards universalism in language. but i think it accurately describes what we know till now.

  10. Just a clarification on “Certain peoples might not have a conception of political freedom because they lack a concept of politics itself or of unfreedom.”: this is well-documented among primitive societies which have very complicated means of sharing common resources without resorting to land “rights” or boundaries.

  11. Phenotypes result from the expression of an organism’s genes as well as the influence of environmental factors and the interactions between the two.

    Yes indeed. And this principle applied to language is Deutscher’s work. He’s quite brilliant.

  12. “They just have no outlet which is as convenient as non-deaf people.” I hope you realize that “convenient” is determined by social norms. Signed languages are only inconvenient because most hearing people don’t speak them, and because hearing people look down on people who DO use signed language. (“Oh, poor things, it’s so sad that they can’t hear and speak, so they have to use those weird gestures instead!”) As languages, they are just as convenient for the purposes of communication as English, French, etc. In signed language you can deliver poetry, a philosophical treatise, a biology dissertation. They are full languages.

    Hence, saying American Sign Language is a “version” of sign language is simply stupid. That’s like saying Chinese is a version of speech. It assumes that people who use different signed languages can all understand each other, because, after all, it’s just like they’re speaking the same language but with different accents, right? Wrong. There are not different “versions” of sign language. There are different sign languages. They are as different from each other, and individually each as complex and expressively thorough, as any spoken language. You mentioned that point in your first few sentences but failed to grasp what it means for the linguistic capabilities of deaf users of sign language.

    The point of Mentalese is that it UNDERLIES thought. It’s the brain’s mode of logic, imagery, and spatial reasoning that conjures up abstract concepts. We still – often – give those Mentalese thoughts a recognizable language form. I’m sure you do this all the time – you think to yourself in English, for example, “Wow, Steven Pinker is really insightful!” And both deaf and hearing users of signed languages DO think in sign language, in the same manner that we think in English.

    TL;DR As a hard of hearing individual and a multilingual speaker of American Sign Language,I found this post a cute attempt at insight. But it revealed an annoyingly patronizing attitude towards the deaf and hard of hearing on the author’s part, and a lack of understanding on the subject.

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