Written by: Ashley Tulio, Communication Specialist
Language is deeply embedded in every aspect of our lives. We use it every day, and it is how we interact with the rest of the world. Languages are a universal tool that we utilize to express ourselves when we speak, write or think. It seems impossible to imagine our lives without language. We use words, symbols, signs, and sounds to express our thoughts. My thoughts are words that I hear in my head. There is a voice telling me what I am thinking, even now as I am thinking ahead about how I should structure this blog. I am thinking about my 9:00 a.m. meeting and my schedule for today. I can’t imagine what my mind would be like if that inner voice were not there! Is it even possible to have coherent thoughts without any form of language being present?
What is a thought?
It is essential to understand what a thought is. Aspects, such as feelings, sensations, and impressions can be expressed without language being involved. But there is a difference between being able to experience fright, guilt or pain and processing the concept of “fright,” “guilt,” or “pain.” Most would argue that thoughts are more about your understanding of the concept than your momentary feelings or an expression of emotion. Thoughts are something that you process and are often expressed through internal dialogue with yourself. The question now is: can one think without using any words or symbols, and what would that look like?
What are some different types of thinking that don’t involve language?
Many scientists describe their thought processes differently, and when it comes to solving complicated visual problems, they don’t use words or concepts, instead, their thoughts are more abstract and filled with images/visual representations to help them display complex concepts and further their understanding. This is similar to non-verbal reasoning. It’s a technique meant for problem-solving based on pictures, diagrams and shapes, rather than words. Non-verbal reasoning tests are often given to children to see how they use critical thinking and logic when solving a problem. These tests help determine the child’s mathematical capabilities, cognitive capacity and deduction abilities. Furthermore, these tests can also be used by anyone who wants to increase their non-verbal intelligence.
What are non-verbal thoughts?
Non-verbal intelligence is a person’s ability to analyze and decipher incoming information using visual and hands-on reasoning. It is being able to interpret our environment without using words. Nonverbal intelligence is quite complicated, and although we can all use it to a certain extent, it is challenging to master and requires a particular type of thinking, and in some cases, even personality. Many artists, engineers and designers engage in this way of thinking because their job requires them to think more visually. It’s a fascinating way of thinking and one that very few people can use effectively.
While it is hard to determine if our thoughts are genuinely free of any language, you can probably assume that people who don’t speak any languages would think differently, where thoughts would be more abstract and visual instead. So given the information above, one could say that it is possible to think without language. But let me ask you another question: is it optimal or as effective as thinking with language, and does it have any actual use for us everyday people?
How do we use language to understand ourselves?
Extensive thinking will require cognitive thoughts, which come with a certain amount of language. It is natural to use your spoken language during thinking and use symbols and words to help you grasp new concepts. This is what sets us apart from animals and makes us human. We can interpret and understand our environment completely differently from language and our critical thinking abilities. Spoken languages allow us to communicate with other humans, but most importantly ourselves, which has enabled us to self-reflect and continually improve. Language allows us to have conversations within ourselves which helps us understand our own feelings and emotions. Non-verbal thinking, while being useful in some situations, doesn’t allow a lot of interpretation and lacks the specificity needed for deeper understanding.
Without language, it would be impossible to grasp many broad concepts or engage in abstract and critical thinking. Without language, humans wouldn’t be where they are today. Language is truly one of humanity’s most remarkable creations.