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.


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.


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


Books to read in 2012-13

This is for future reference, posted here mostly because I’ve just realised that Facebook‘s timeline is useless at being an archive. These are all books by good writers, and I recommend them to anybody reading this and willing to listen. I will buy them the first chance I get–which, with my access to free money, means whenever the paperback editions come out. And the paperback editions will come out. They will, they will, they will.

[Edit (3/10/12): If you have suggestions, would you leave them in Comments? I have already had somebody tell me about Philip Ball’s The Music Instinct. {Edit: Go here for a less charitable review.}]

1. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients

I read this excerpt from the book in The Guardian. There’s also this TED talk. The book is about the serious malpractice committed in the pharmaceutical industry. Medical researchers are shills in the game. Anything for profit.

In any sensible world, when researchers are conducting trials on a new tablet for a drug company, for example, we’d expect universal contracts, making it clear that all researchers are obliged to publish their results, and that industry sponsors – which have a huge interest in positive results – must have no control over the data. But, despite everything we know about industry-funded research being systematically biased, this does not happen. In fact, the opposite is true: it is entirely normal for researchers and academics conducting industry-funded trials to sign contracts subjecting them to gagging clauses that forbid them to publish, discuss or analyse data from their trials without the permission of the funder./snip/

Missing data poisons the well for everybody. If proper trials are never done, if trials with negative results are withheld, then we simply cannot know the true effects of the treatments we use. Evidence in medicine is not an abstract academic preoccupation. When we are fed bad data, we make the wrong decisions, inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering, and death, on people just like us.


2. David Quammen’s Spillover

Here’s an excerpt also from The Guardian. David Quammen gave a talk at NCBS recently, and was interviewed for Tehelka by a classmate from the Science-Writing workshop. If you have seen the movie Contagion, this subject is already familiar to you. I haven’t seen the movie.

It’s a mildly technical term, zoonosis, unfamiliar to most people, but it helps clarify the biological complexities behind the ominous headlines about swine flu, bird flu, Sars, emerging diseases in general, and the threat of a global pandemic. It’s a word of the future, destined for heavy use in the 21st century.We’re unique in the history of mammals. No other primate has ever weighed upon the planet to anything like the degree we do. In ecological terms, we are almost paradoxical: large-bodied and long-lived but grotesquely abundant. We are an outbreak.


And here’s the thing about outbreaks: they end. In some cases they end after many years, in others they end rather soon. In some cases they end gradually, in others they end with a crash. In certain cases, they end and recur and end again.


3. David Byrne’s How Music Works

Is music universal? Is creativity? Or genius? David Byrne offers an answer that shouldn’t be as surprising as it nevertheless is. The excerpt from he book is at Salon.

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen.


Presuming that there is such a thing as “progress” when it comes to music, and that music is “better” now than it used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t “improve.”


It seems that creativity, whether bird song, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius — the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work — seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.

Monday Book Review

I’ve read, over the last week or so, Last Chance To See, by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, a book that is a clarion voice for conservationism, but also much more.

Last Chance to See is a nerdy science-fiction writer’s account of his journey across five continents and several countries on a mission to find the world’s rarest fauna. You learn how this Gulliveresque journey came to be when you travel to Madagascar to find the rarest lemur in existence today. We also meet the fearsome (even purely for its breath) Komodo Dragon Lizard, the delightfully weird Kakapo of New Zealand, The northern mountain gorillas and the majestic white rhinos of Zaire, the precious Baiji river dolphins of Shangai and the critically endangered birds of Mauritius. DA has an exceptional ability to make these animals and their critically endangered habitats come alive to the reader. When he’s talking about the silverback (meaning adult) gorilla he encounters:

As I moved again, he shifted himself away from me, just about six inches, as if I had sat too close to him on a sofa and he was grumpily making a bit more room. Then he lay on his front with chin on his fist, idly scratching his cheek with his other hand. I sat as still and quiet as I could, despite discovering that I was being bitten to death by ants. He looked from one to another of us without any great concern, and then his attention dropped to his own hands as he idly scratched some flecks of dirt off one of his fingers with his thumb. I had the impression that we were as much interest to him as a boring Sunday afternoon in front of the television. He yawned.

Or when he describes the island of Komodo:

The images that the island presented to the imagination were very hard to avoid. The rocky outcrops took on the shape of massive triangular teeth, and the dark and moody grey brown hills undulate like the heavy folds of a lizard’s skin. I knew that if I were a mariner in unknown waters, the first thing I would write on my charts at this moment would be ‘Here be Dragons’.

In both cases he talks about the kind of mind that would leap to anthropomorphise everything around it. This keen understanding of the human psyche has, for me, been the most (surprisingly) satisfying part of Last Chance to See. DA’s powers of observation of human behaviour are sharp, and his commentary is genius.  He says of the fact that Komodo’s giant lizards are fed freshly slaughtered goats to allow visitors to see the lizards ‘in action’ (once more, his musings mirror those of Gulliver):

We find images of evil in creatures that know nothing of such matters, so that we can feel revolted by them, and, by contrast, good about ourselves. And if they won’t be revolting enough of their own accord, we stoke them up with a goat. They don’t want the goat, they don’t need it. If they wanted one, they’d find it themselves. The only truly revolting thing that happens to the goat is in fact done by us.

In their travels through Africa, the group has to wrangle with an assortment of corrupt officials. DA’s grasp of colonial politics and the effects it has on people comes across in his observations of travel through Zaire, which was once a colony of Britain:

Like most colonies, Zaire had imposed on it a stifling bureaucracy, the sole function of which was to refer decisions upwards to its colonial masters. Focal officials rarely had the power to do things, only to prevent them being done until bribed. So once the colonial masters are removed, the bureaucracy continues to thrash around like a headless chicken with nothing to do other than trip itself up, bump into things and, when it can get the firepower, shoot itself in the foot. You can always tell an ex-colony from the inordinate numbers of people who are able to find employment stopping anybody who has anything to do from doing it.

Having ranted about the frustratingly tiresome malaise of bureaucratic overkill in India, I particularly appreciate DA’s comments on sweet-talking, well-dressed officials who turn out to be the most corrupt of the lot:

He explained slowly. Tourists, he said, had to leave the country from the same port by which they had entered. Smile. […]It was the most preposterous invention. He still held on to our passports. […]We knew it was nonsense. He knew we knew it was nonsense. That was clearly part of the pleasure of it. He smiled at us again, gave us a slow contented shrug, and idly brushed a bit of fluff off the sleeve of the natty blue suit towards the cost of which he clearly expected a major contribution

If this wit of Douglas Adams is surpassed at all, it is by his own awe in the face of the enormous, complex, fragile beauty of nature. I can think of no better reason to read a book than that.