Can we think without language?

In our writing group today we ended up debating this title question. How apt it is – at a time when it is reported by the special needs jungle drums that Speech and Language Therapy is not being provided by many pupils who need it. Specialists in this vital field are few on the ground.

But back to my title question – one that was asked by Vygotsky many years ago, in relation to education and learning. There is no simple answer but the way in which we acquire concepts is an interesting way to consider the issue. First, let’s consider sensory experiences. A young child touches a hot oven and learns, without language, not to touch it again. We smell flowers, taste fruit, see the sun and feel everything around us. These are sensory experiences, pleasurable or otherwise, that, in my view, need no language. They are still part of our sensory experiences whether we have words for them or not. But are they yet thoughts? Are they ideas and concepts if we have no words to describe them? I think not. They are merely experiences that produce emotions, recorded through the senses. Without words we cannot do anything more with them.

Now think about concepts that we cannot acquire by experience. We see the moon but we cannot touch it. Yet most of us can imagine what it would be like to land on the moon – or climb a snowy mountain, or ride through a desert, or make a parachute jump, even if we have not experienced any of these things. How? Language! Words help us to use the experiences we know about to imagine others that are beyond reach, such as the moon.

So what has this got to do with learning? In my view, while we can learn purely from experience (eg. not to touch a hot oven) without words – personal experiences alone cannot take us very far. For one thing, all our experiences are different. Without words, how would we communicate them?

There are three vital points to all of this. Firstly, too many young children are arriving in school without the language they need in order to learn. Secondly, too many children with Speech and Language difficulties are denied the additional support they need in order to remove their barriers to learning. Thirdly, language skills are too often placed within the limitations of English – rather than being used and applied across the school curriculum.

The skills of speaking and listening underpin all other learning. Without language – literacy does not stand a chance! Learning cannot happen without words. So can children in school think without language? Maybe it depends on the level of thinking that we want our children to indulge in. If we want learners to explore the world around them and take their experiences further than what is purely personal – then language is a tool for learning. If we want our schools to produce young people who can think into the future – and solve the world’s problems – then language is the first priority. Language surely enables thought. Can we think without language? No.

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