I was discussing some things with a psychology major, and he insisted that people always use a language to think. This is quite opposed to my own experience.

I agree that I am capable of formulating my own thoughts in a kind of internal monologue, which is certainly in a language. But this is just one kind of my thought process. Sometimes my thoughts seem to be less language-bound. And what I think is the most important, it happens to me sometimes that I am speaking and suddenly notice that the word I am going to say is in a different language (almost always it happens just before I say it, but after the sentence has been formed and said up to the word). I don't mean the cases where I have learned a concept in another language and I am grasping for the correct word in the language I am currently speaking, I mean perfectly everyday words, like saying "I saw the book " and realizing that the word which I am going to say next is "gestern" instead of "yesterday". But at the time I realize this, I have already spoken the preceding part of the sentence. In very rare cases, I only notice it after I have said it, and hear my own wrong sentence.

I interpret such occasions as follows: I must have thought of the time reference without using a word in a language, after that constructed a sentence without consciously choosing words (else I would have noticed that "gestern" is wrong), and only made use of my vocabulary after that, practically at the point of commanding the mouth to form the words.

But he claimed that this isn't true, and that humans always use a language for thinking, not just for communicating. He couldn't point me to sources, or even tell me about an author researching such problems. He just claimed that he knows it for a fact, and must have learned it in a lecture. Do you know of research in that area? And what is its conclusion?

Skivvz's comment about off-topic makes me think that maybe I didn't state my question clear enough.

The claim I am disputing is: People always use a language in their internal thought processes. I provided an example which I interpret as anecdotal evidence against the claim. I also explained my interpretation. I am not asking how good my interpretation of this example is (this is probably the content suited to a psychology forum). But if you know of research which proves or disproves the claim, I'd like to hear about it.

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    Anecdotally, I find myself switching in my head sometimes as well, but I don't have any reason for when or why. But more to the point, You should check out some of Steven Pinker's writings, particularly The Language Instinct. He's probably spent more time studying this specific question and other links between language and thought than anyone I can think of. – Monkey Tuesday May 3 '11 at 23:15
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    Thinking in a mix of languages and substituting words from different languages, counts as thinking in language. However, you can think in pictures or emotions or whatever as well, but I guess this is unusual. – Lennart Regebro May 4 '11 at 13:23
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    How did humans think before the invention of language? How do babies think? And what about animals? Experiments have shown that some animals can think logically and plan ahead. How does their thought process work? – Oliver_C May 4 '11 at 14:28
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    Hold on... I thought it was commonplace to use binary? – Mateen Ulhaq May 20 '11 at 2:59
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    I think deaf people are able to think, even when they did not learn to read or sign language or so. – PlasmaHH Dec 16 '14 at 22:20

No. Human thought precedes language.

The anecdotal evidence for this should suffice, but you cannot be trusted (as you already have language skills).

Short Answer: Prelingual infants think.

In 2004 researchers Hespos and Spelke explored Korean language concepts with a group of five-month-old (human) infants from English-speaking homes...

The example they used to explore this question was differences between how different languages describe space. For example, the distinction between a tight fit versus a loose fit is marked in Korean but not in English. A cap on a pen would be a tight fit relationship, while a pen on a table would be a loose fit relationship. English does not mark this distinction in the same way, instead emphasizing the “containment” versus “support” relationship, for example: the coffee is in the mug or the mug is on the table. - source

...the infants showed an understanding of events that represented a change in "fit"...

Because this capacity is observed well before the acquisition of a natural language in infants whose ambient language does not mark the distinction, this capacity does not depend on language experience. Instead, the capacity seems to be linked to mechanisms for representing objects and their motions that are shared by other animals and therefore evolved before the human language faculty. - source

In other words...

Learning a particular language may lead us to favor some of these concepts over others, but the concepts already existed before we put them into words. - source

More: Why would you think language is required ?

On one hand we can claim that we can even think in pictures or on the other hand one has to think to learn a language. In terms of neurosciences it has been proved that thinking without language is possible. However the philosophical references often deny that one can think without language.
- source

These philosophical discussions have been going on for sometime...

When people have begun to reflect on language, its relation to thinking becomes a central concern. Several cultures have independently viewed the main function of language as the expression of thought. Ancient Indian grammarians speak of the soul apprehending things with the intellect and inspiring the mind with a desire to speak, and in the Greek intellectual tradition Aristotle declared, “Speech is the representation of the experiences of the mind” (On Interpretation). Such an attitude passed into Latin theory and thence into medieval doctrine. Medieval grammarians envisaged three stages in the speaking process: things in the world exhibit properties; these properties are understood by the minds of humans; and, in the manner in which they have been understood, so they are communicated to others by the resources of language. Rationalist writers on language in the 17th century gave essentially a similar account: speaking is expressing thoughts by signs invented for the purpose, and words of different classes (the different parts of speech) came into being to correspond to the different aspects of thinking. - source

  • Wilhelm von Humboldt: Credited as an originator of the linguistic relativity hypothesis (aka: the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis).
  • Benjamin Lee Whorf: Widely known for his ideas about linguistic relativity, the hypothesis that language influences thought.
  • Noam Chomsky: Well known in the academic and scientific community as one of the fathers of modern linguistics.

On the one hand, most people, after hearing evidence that language is an innate faculty of humans, would not be surprised to learn that it comes from the same source that every other complex innate aspect of the human brain and body comes from — namely, natural selection. But two very prominent people deny this conclusion, and they aren't just any old prominent people, but Stephen Jay Gould, probably the most famous person who has written on evolution, and Noam Chomsky, the most famous person who has written on language. They've suggested that language appeared as a by- product of the laws of growth and form of the human brain, or perhaps as an accidental by-product of selection for something else, and they deny that language is an adaptation. I disagree with both of them. - Pinker, Language Is a Human Instinct

  • Steven Pinker: Argues that language is an "instinct" or biological adaptation shaped by natural selection.

...These scholars, ranging from Aristotle to Freud, took these specific instances to be exceptional, marginal eruptions of meaning, curious and suggestive. But none of them focused on the general mental capacity of blending or, as far as we can tell, even recognize that there is such a mental capacity. Attentive to the specific attraction - the painting ,the poem, the dream , the scientific insight - they did not look for what all these bits and pieces have in common. The spectacular trees masked the forest.
- Turner-Fauconnier, The Way We Think


Background: Why is language important ?

Before Homo sapiens came on the scene 150 kya innovation and change amongst the genus of the family Hominidae was pretty dull. Homo habilis showed up 2.4 mya and stayed around for a million years. They had one, and only one, great idea: Stone tools. Next up was Homo erectus (1.5 – 0.2 mya). Erectus was a slow starter but about 400,000 years ago they hit pay-dirt: Controlled use of Fire. Great. For 2.2 million years of effort we have some sharp rocks and a barbeque.

Then things get really interesting.....

Any innovation must take place within a species, since there is no place else it can do so. Natural selection is, moreover, not a creative force. It merely works on variations that come into existence spontaneously—it cannot call innovations into existence just because they might be advantageous. Any new structure or aptitude has to be in place before it can be exploited by its possessors, and it may take some time for those possessors to discover all the uses of such novelties. Such seems to have been the case for Homo sapiens in that the earliest well-documented members of our species appear to have behaved in broadly the same manner as Neanderthals for many tens of thousands of years. It is highly unlikely that another species anatomically indistinguishable from Homo sapiens but behaviorally similar to Neanderthals was supplanted worldwide in an extremely short span of time. Therefore, it seems appropriate to conclude that a latent capacity for symbolic reasoning was present when anatomically modern Homo sapiens emerged and that our forebears discovered their radically new behavioral abilities somewhat later in time.

A cultural “release mechanism” of some sort was necessarily involved in this discovery, and the favoured candidate for this role is language, the existence of which cannot be inferred with any degree of confidence from the records left behind by any other species but our own. Language is the ultimate symbolic activity, involving the creation and manipulation of mental symbols and permitting the posing of questions such as “What if?” Not all components of human thought are symbolic (the human brain has a very long accretionary, evolutionary history that still governs the way thoughts and feelings are processed), but it is certainly the addition of symbolic manipulations to intuitive processes that makes possible what is recognized as the human mind.

The origins of this mind are obscure indeed, especially as scientists are still ignorant of how a mass of electrochemical signals in the brain gives rise to what we experience as consciousness. But the invention of language would plausibly have released the earliest of the cultural and technological innovations that symbolic thought makes possible—in the process unleashing a cascade of discoveries that is still ongoing. One of the most striking features of the archaeological record that accompanies the arrival of behaviorally modern Homo sapiens is a distinct alteration in the tempo of innovation and change. Significant cultural and technological novelties had previously been rare, with long periods of apparent stability intervening between relatively sudden episodes of innovation. But once behaviorally modern Homo sapiens arrived on the scene, different local technological traditions—and, by extension, other forms of cultural diversity—began to proliferate regularly, setting a pace that is still gathering today.
- source

The Bottom Line

When you look into the eyes of the one you love and think of what they mean to you...
What language do you think in ?

Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs, Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes, Being vexed, a sea nourished with lovers’ tears. What is it else? A madness most discreet, A choking gall and a preserving sweet. - Bill

What language was he thinking in ?

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    It is obviously true that one can trivially think without language. This is evidenced, as you point out, by the languageless persons. But what about the hypothesis that language is not necessary for thinking, but it greatly amplifies the power of thinking one can do if utilized? The utilization I mean is purely mental, and does not include writing or speaking to others. – Superbest Dec 17 '14 at 6:20
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    @Superbest - agree. Words are tools that amplify the power and accuracy of thinking, just as visual images do, or the concept of numbers. Thinking doesn't precede words, but it can be done with or without them, depending on the needs of the thinker. The need for precision and logical rigor is probably the biggest factor... I don't need that when gazing into my lover's eyes. I do when composing a stack exchange comment. (Wait... is this philosophy or skeptics? Whoops.) – kbelder Apr 17 '15 at 16:35
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    @Superbest: Personal anecdote: language clarifies certain types of thinking. When designing lego structures, or model airplanes or when debugging programs I often find language hinders my thinking. In those situations I think in shapes/spaces. When programming or doing maths I also find language distracting. In those situations I think of relationships or patterns. I've talked to people often enough who claim that they can only think in language so I understand that not everyone can think non-linguistically. – slebetman Apr 18 '15 at 15:03
  • Another good clear example - there are many, many of examples of kids with autism who showed impressive intellectual abilities before they acquired language; and children with other unusual developmental patterns who are clearly capable of thought but for whatever reason don't acquire a language. – user568458 Sep 12 '16 at 20:44

Your question reminded me TED talk:


in which Temple Grandin explains how her autistic mind works. She says that unlike majority of people she thinks in pictures, not in language.

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    And why should we believe her? I'm not saying she's wrong, but I can't see that this could count as anything more than introspective anecdotal evidence, which is no different from similar claims that prompted the initial question. – Alan Munn Jun 27 '13 at 19:50
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    @AlanMunn: The problem with not believing testimonies is that we can only conclude that people don't think in a language because any such claim would also be nothing more than introspective anecdotal evidence. – slebetman Apr 18 '15 at 15:06
  • While this may theoretically answer the question, it would be preferable to include the essential parts of the answer here, and provide the link for reference. – Mithrandir Oct 30 '17 at 12:23

One example is known as a number form ... certain people think of numbers in geometric ways, not in words. Number forms were first documented and named by Galton 1881.


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