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Imagine growing up without words. You live in a typical industrialized household, but you are somehow unable to learn the language of your parents. That means that you do not have access to education; you cannot properly communicate with your family other than through a set of idiosyncratic gestures; you never get properly exposed to abstract ideas such as “justice” or “global warming.” All you know comes from direct experience with the world.
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Language is the dress of thought.
The lack of language affects even functions that do not seem to be intrinsically “linguistic,” such as math. Developmental research shows that keeping track of exact numbers above four requires knowing the words for these numbers. Imagine trying to tell the difference be...
Does our mind develop normally under such circumstances? Of course not. Language enables us to receive vast amounts of information we would have never acquired otherwise. The details of your parents’ wedding. The Declaration of Independence. The entrée section of the dinner menu....
Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”; So far, the evidence does suggest that the limits of our language mean the limits of our world. However, what happens if language disappears once the mind is fully developed...
Not all writers support Wittgenstein’s and Russell’s idea that language and thought are inseparable. Tom Lubbock, a British writer and illustrator whose language system gradually deteriorated because of a brain tumor, wrote in his memoir shortly before his death in 2011:
In recent years, neuroscientists have isolated a network of brain regions (typically in the left hemisphere) that react almost exclusively to linguistic input. They respond to written sentences, spoken narratives, words, monologues, conversations, but will not activate in response to memory tasks...
It might seem that this scenario is purely hypothetical. There aren’t any cases of language deprivation in modern industrialized societies, right? It turns out there are. Many deaf children born into hearing families face exactly this issue. They cannot hear and, as a re...
Many great thinkers have drawn a strong connection between language and the mind. Oscar Wilde called language “the parent, and not the child, of thought”; Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”; and Bertrand Russell stated that the role of...
Research on adult individuals with aphasia has demonstrated that math, theory of mind, and many other cognitive abilities are independent from language. Patients with severe language impairments perform comparably to the rest of us when asked to complete arithmetic tasks...
The condition described above is known as global aphasia. It arises from severe damage to the brain, often as a result of a massive stroke. While some aphasias are temporary, in some cases the damage is irreparable, and the person may lose language for life. In your case, let’s say that a dozen d...
Another part of your mind that needs language to develop properly is social cognition. Think about your interactions with your family and friends. Why is your mom upset? Why did your friend go inside the house just now? Understanding social situations requires inferring what the people ar...
Imagine you are a typical adult; let’s say you’re 40. You wake up one day, and suddenly, you realize that your language is gone. You look around the room, but no words come to mind to describe the objects you see. You’re starting to plan out your day, but no half-formed phrases rush throu...
So, what can we say about the role language plays in shaping our minds? Well, pick a mind that is still developing, and you will find that removing language will alter it for life. However, pick a mind that is fully formed and take all words away, and y...
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
Language is what makes us human, what lies at the root of our awareness, our intellect, our sense of self. Without it, we cannot plan, cannot communicate, cannot think. Or can we?
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Take language away, and the amount of information you can acquire decreases.
Many deaf children born into hearing families live in a world unable to communicate properly. They are never exposed to abstract ideas such as "justice" or "global warming." Unless the parents learn sign langu...
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