What language does a deaf person think in? Redux

“Thinking in a language” is a convenient shorthand for letting the structure of the language guide your thinking; but we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of confusion if we take the idea literally.

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As background, read this blogpost from more than four years ago on which got an indignant comment recently. What I want to say in response is long enough that I thought I’d make it a post.

First–and only first because I want to leave the mea culpas for the end–I meant inconvenient to the speaker, not to the listener (who is really secondary to this discussion). And convenience isn’t simply a matter of convention: I can speak and brush my hair, say, at the same time, which somebody who has to sign with their hands can’t do. That’s all I meant.

Second, I don’t dispute that speakers of English, say, can sometimes “think in English”, where “think in English” is shorthand for “use some of the conventions of the language as a shortcut tool for thinking” (more about this in the “what I got wrong” section below). I’ve seen musicians talk to each other “in music”, so I can easily believe they’re capable of “thinking” in music. In my own experience, as I get more familiar with programming, it is sometimes easier to just “think in C++” instead of trying to translate some idea into C++. But, if this isn’t exclusively the only way to think (see below about the “if”), we still have to ask what happens when this isn’t the way the thinking happened. Answer: mentalese.

Now, on to what I got wrong:

a) I said “different versions” of sign language, instead of different sign languages. (Having never used a signed language,) I got this wrong.

b) My thoughts on whether language can affect thought have changed after I read Guy Deutscher‘s incredibly good books on language: both The Unfolding of Language and Through the Language Glass are masterpieces of persuasive writing and I highly recommend them. My favourite example from Through the…  is where Deutscher talks of a tribe in Australia whose language, Guugu Yimithirr, only contains the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West). Native speakers of this language, it seems, are able to keep track of which way is North far better than speakers of a language that also uses user-fixed directions – left, right, forwards, backwards(*footnote1).

This is not at all to say that speakers of this language don’t–much less can’t–understand what ‘left’ or ‘right’ are. They just have a point on the rest of us when it comes to keeping track of which way is North.

This is also not proof that the speakers of Guugu Yimithirr “think in” Guugu Yimithirr. The speaker of the language is forced to keep track of the cardinal directions in order to be able to talk coherently. If people “thought in” a certain language–if we could only “think in” a certain language–then we would be arguing that speakers of a language such as Guugu Yimithirr don’t understand the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

My point is this: “thinking in a language” is a convenient shorthand for letting the structure of the language guide your thinking; but we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of confusion if we take the idea literally.


Footnotes:

1) “Native” speakers are people who were raised from infancy speaking the language. Also, there’s a proper word for “user-fixed” directions

 

Net neutrality in India, or what Airtel will do next

Internet access is a public utility (like electricity or water) and should be to be regulated as such. Would you be OK with having to pay more for using electricity to power your computer rather than a TV? If not, you shouldn’t be OK with somebody forcing variably-priced internet upon you.

At 10% 20% (footnote 1), the fraction of the population of India that has (regular) access to the Internet may not be as high as in the developed world, but 20% of 1.2 billion is a significant number and India already has the third largest internet user-base in the world. And with the kind of penetration of mobile telephony that India has, it is only a matter of time before that fraction shoots up. In fact, it may already have started doing this: that fraction has doubled in the last three years.

A fifth of the country now has regular access to the internet. Internet access is, therefore, no longer a vanity; it is what might be called a public utility (like electricity or water) and should be to be regulated as such. Would you be OK with having to pay more for using electricity to power your computer rather than a TV? If not, you shouldn’t be OK with somebody forcing variably-priced internet upon you. This has long been the argument of supporters of a free (not as in beer) internet, activists for net neutrality.

The flashpoint recently was Airtel’s decision to start charging for using its network to make VoIP calls. Unsurprisingly, Airtel wants its customers to talk over their mobile telephony network rather than use their network to make calls over the internet. It looks like they were only testing the waters, though, because they’ve now rolled back the proposed tariffs. About which, two thoughts:

1) Like the article at medianama says, they’ve possibly only done this to force TRAI to make a decision, and you can imagine how good they feel about their chances to do something like this.

2) What airtel did here was both a clear violation of net neutrality and something that would cost the end-user money. The more insidious threat to net neutrality will come when airtel (or some other company) partners up with skype – make calls on skype free, but you’ll have to pay for any other VoIP service; I don’t know if we’ll see the same kind of backlash from the public then as we’ve seen now.


 

*fn1: The numbers I remembered were 5% for the world as a whole and 10% for India. Good thing I decided to look up the numbers, then.