LAURA TAYLOR considers whether we need language to be able to think

When you think, do you think in words or in another form? Don’t we need to think in order to use and decipher language? That’s assuming that all language is verbal and takes the form of words. What about body language? Sign language? The relationship between language and thought is a complex thing to consider and it is hard to apply a concrete answer to the question: ‘Do we need language in order to think?’

Consider the concept of time. McWhorter (2014) points out that in languages such as English, French and Indonesian, time is a measurement of distance. So an English speaker would say ‘a long time’ or ‘a long night’. Compare this to speakers of Spanish, Italian or Greek who see time as a quantity. They would say something takes ‘a lot of time’ or that it has been ‘a lot of night’. McWhorter (2014) points out that despite the difference in how we refer to time, people throughout the world can understand the concept. This negates the idea that language has an impact on the way we think.

Different languages are an interesting insight into the relationship between language and thought, particularly the idea of concepts.  Take the word ‘privacy’. An English speaker is likely to know the word and understand the concept behind it. However, according to Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld  (2010) the word ‘privacy’ does not exist in the Italian language and cannot be translated from English. However that does not mean that Italians do not understand the concept, as can be shown from their actions and way of living.

Similarly, there is a word in Italian for the superstition that makes us say that the worst is going to happen in order to ward it off. This word is ‘scaramanzia’. English speakers can fully comprehend this definition, even though there is not a word for it in the English language. Napoli and Schoenfeld (2010) use this to question the relationship between language and thought. Even though these words are not translatable from language to language, it does not mean that individual speakers cannot comprehend the basic concepts. This implies that we do not need language to be able to think or understand certain ideas.

Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld (2010) note that children who are born deaf are not usually given linguistic assistance until they are a toddler or older as this is usually when their disability is discovered. They are then provided with information in the form of spoken language via hearing aids, lessons in speech reading , lessons in vocalization, and/or teaching the children and their families sign language. Their argument is that deaf children who have no linguistic information in the early years of their lives are still clearly able to think, as shown by their actions.

Some might argue that it makes no difference. Bloom and Keil (2001) note that babies don’t know the names of the things and beings that occupy the world around them but that does not mean they are not aware of them. They refer to an idea by Jerry Fodor (1975) called ‘mentalese’ or ‘a language of thought’, which suggests that any kind of language learning is a sort of second language learning. It implies that it shouldn’t matter if an infant is deaf as babies do not understand language in the way that adults do so whether they can hear or not should not be a factor in the discussion of the relationship between language and thought.

I personally believe that language has an impact on our thoughts but only to a certain degree. The ‘feral’ or ‘wild child’ Genie Wiley gained some linguistic knowledge and was able to speak about events from her past before she knew any sort of language (Nova : 1994, Secret of the Wild Child, Youtube: August 29, 2012). This, amongst certain other implications, suggests to me that language is not the only factor that allows us to think. However, I do believe that my language has an impact on the way I think.  I believe that the relationship between language and thought is somewhat of an individual matter,  which depends on independent factors such as culture and upbringing.

  LAURA TAYLOR, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bloom, P. and Keil, F (2001) Thinking Through Language. Mind and Language 16(4), pp. 351-67.

Fodor, J.A, (1975) The Language of Thought. Harvard University Press.

McWhorter, J. (2014) The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in any Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Napoli, D. and Lee-Schoenfeld, V. (2010) Language Matters: A Guide to Everyday Questions about Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nova (1994), Secret of the Wild Child, Youtube





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s