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If a person is partially deaf, I think they would be able to acquire the language, and actually I've seen partially deaf people speak in addition to the use of a sign language. I suppose this means they can use that language when they think, is this correct?

But what happens when someone is totally deaf? Hence my question: what language, if any, do deaf people use for their thoughts?

And also, how is this determined?

Update: Since this created some misunderstanding, my use of "if any" does not mean that Sign Languages are not languages or that I don't see them as such. I actually do. Rather, I meant to say that I was thinking that maybe totally deaf people could either use no language at all, just images or self-thinking or do like other people and use a mix of images/sign languages. And also how this had been determined.

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    I don't believe it is a decided question whether people "think in" a particular language. As a thought experiment: what language does a deaf-mute like Helen Keller think in? – Mark Beadles May 17 '12 at 3:12
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    I'm afraid there is a wrong assumption in the question "what language, if any, do deaf people use for their thoughts?" People are capable of thinking without language proper. – Alex B. May 17 '12 at 15:15
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    @Alenanno, it's not certain that people think using their mother tongue. – Joe May 17 '12 at 15:40
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    @Alenanno, I'm not sure it'd be possible for anyone to prove that people think in a certain language. I can only submit as evidence that when I read your response, I thought about it for a bit, not using any particular language. I then had to figure out how to put my thoughts into English. – Joe May 17 '12 at 16:16
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    @Alenanno, when I actually think, like when I speak to myself, it usually doesn't contain much language at all. I don't understand this division you're making between "concept-like thoughts" and "actually thinking". – Joe May 17 '12 at 16:44
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Steven Pinker (in The Language Instinct, 1995) suggested a name for the language that people "think in": mentalese. This language, of course, is not a real language and it only vaguely resembles the actual languages that people speak or sign. On the other hand, it is universal; every human being is born with it. His argument is that no natural language could possibly serve as a good medium for reasoning, for several reasons: ambiguity, lack of logical explicitness, co-reference, deixis and synonymy.

In his own words:

People do not think in English or Chinese or Apache; they think in a language of thought. This language of thought probably looks a bit like all these languages; presumably it has symbols for concepts, and arrangements of symbols that correspond to who did what to whom, as in the paint-spraying representation shown above. But compared with any given language, mentalese must be richer in some ways and simpler in others. It must be richer, for example, in that several concept symbols must correspond to a given English word like stool or stud. [...]. On the other hand, mentalese must be simpler than spoken languages; conversation-specific words and constructions (like a and the) are absent, and information about pronouncing words, or even ordering them, is unnecessary. Now, it could be that English speakers think in some kind of simplified and annotated quasi-English, with the design I have just described, and that Apache speakers think in a simplified and annotated quasi- Apache. But to get these languages of thought to subserve reasoning properly, they would have to look much more like each other than either one does to its spoken counterpart, and it is likely that they are the same: a universal mentalese.

Knowing a language, then, is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words and vice versa.

The same argument can, of course, be applied to deaf-mute people, even to those who have never learned any language at all. He presents a few compelling examples of people with serious disabilities who are nevertheless capable of the same kinds of complex reasoning that speaking and signing people are.

This is what cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists call "computational" or "representational" theory of mind, according to which, what takes place in the mind is a mere manipulation of symbols, much like a computer, hence the name. Thus, the so called mentalese would be a very complex system of symbols used to represent the world inside people's minds. The "computer processor", in this case, would the brain, storing and manipulating these symbols by means of physico-chemical processes.

To sum up: there is no reason (according to this theory) to posit a natural language that people use for their thoughts. Languages would play, at best, an auxiliary role in the reasoning process.

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    I think that this is the right answer to the general question of "what language do we think in"? – Mark Beadles May 17 '12 at 3:14
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    @MarkBeadles are you saying that I haven't answered the question or that Alenanno's question is just a particular case of a more general question that my answer correctly addresses? – Otavio Macedo May 17 '12 at 13:37
  • Sometimes I do think the way Pinker claims. But sometimes I actually think in my native language (English). Sometimes in Spanish, even though I don't speak it fluently. And even (rarely) in American Sign Language even though I am FAR from fluent. – WGroleau Apr 15 '17 at 5:48
  • This is completely wrong answer. – Anixx Mar 5 '19 at 5:47
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... what happens when someone is totally deaf? One of two things. Either, they learn a signed or spoken language and from then on use that language to talk to themselves, dream, and all the things you do with yours. Whether that includes "thinking" is largely a matter of opinion/definition. OR, they never learn any language in which case they think, dream, and talk to themselves without language.

Contrary to popular wisdom, adults without language not only exist, they aren't that hard to find. They hold jobs, they tell stories, they do math. Susan Schaller's book describes what it's like: if you are interested in linguistics you should have already read it and if you haven't, go read it now. Nieminen's book describes another languageless individual, this one making a living as a newsboy.

Schaller, Susan. 1991. A Man Without Words. University of California Press.
Nieminen, Raija. 1990 Voyage To The Island. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Univ. Press.

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You don't have to be deaf to know that American Sign Language and various other sign languages used around the globe are languages, pure and simple. The sign languages have complex grammars and rich vocabularies just as the spoken languages do. See ...

Sign Language Linguistics

Center For Applied Linguistics

American Sign Language (Wikipedia)

American Sign Language, whose grammar bears very little resemblance to that of English, should not be confused with Signing Exact English, which is a method of encoding English with signs rather than an independent sign language. Some deaf speakers use what is called "Pidgin Signed English," which is a blend of English and ASL.

Sign Language - Pidgin Signed English

Pidgin Signed English (PSE)

The reason that many people who are deaf from birth have trouble acquiring a first language is that many aren't identified as deaf, or taught sign language, until they're well into the critical period of language acquisition, and consequently don't get enough exposure to sign language early on. See...

Sociolinguistic Perspectives on the Education of Deaf Children in Inclusion Placements

As for literacy, ASL and other sign languages don't have generally accepted written forms, and consequently not much literature. This means that they must learn to read and write in a widespread spoken language in order to become literate. So, for example, we see ASL users' and deaf educators' learning and teaching English.

The relationship between literacy and ASL

To sum up, we don't need to speculate about whether congenitally deaf sign language users have a language to think in. They do.

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  • +1 for pointing out that signed language are languages, full stop. I think that this is a slightly different question than asked but is probably the right way to answer it. – Mark Beadles May 17 '12 at 3:13
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    Where did I ever say that Sign languages are not languages? And is your answer saying that deaf people simply think using sign languages? – Alenanno May 17 '12 at 8:37
  • @Alenanno: Although you did not state that sign languages are not languages, your question about the language that totally deaf people think in "if any" implies that the sign languages used by the totally deaf might not be languages. As for thinking, I would have to agree that language is not the only medium of thought. That is why global aphasics can score well non-verbal cognitive tests whereas dementia victims can't. However, on those occasions when a thinker's thoughts are mediated by a language, sign languages can do the job just a spoken languages can. – James Grossmann May 17 '12 at 18:19
  • @JamesGrossmann That was unclear maybe but I didn't mean it as you thought it was. I perfectly know Sign Languages are languages (the name suggests it too). I was rather focusing on the fact that maybe they use "images" only considering they can see but not hear. But the fact that they use Sign Languages makes sense. – Alenanno May 17 '12 at 18:27
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Not being deaf myself I can only make conjectures but I would assume that they would think in whatever language they use when they read and write.

-= Update =- It's seems that I was mistaken. This article points out that deaf people think in sign language. It points out that people who are both profoundly and prelingually deaf are at a great disadvantage when it comes to acquiring language since most of that development takes place between 21 and 36 months and they are unable to attain the information from the same sources as most other people.

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  • Hello CaseyB and welcome to Linguistics! I wanted to tell you that it's OK and actually it's better, to reword your answer in order to fit your new "line". Delete what is wrong from your answer and reword it to fit the new references. :) Two last things: I was hoping for something more elaborate, like one of those long answers that explain the matter in detail. And I'm not sure how you are answering my question, reading what you wrote. – Alenanno May 16 '12 at 23:02
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    There've been studies when people who are blind and deaf were able to acquire a sign language. – Alex B. May 16 '12 at 23:20
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    Can we find a better reference than "The Straight Dope"? – Alenanno May 17 '12 at 12:08
  • While it is true that many deaf children are at a disadvantage when acquiring language, this is really only true of deaf children who have non-signing parents. When deaf children are raised in signing environments (i.e., deaf children who have deaf parents) they follow the same developmental trajectory as hearing children learning spoken language. See Mayberry, R. I. & Squires, B. (2006). Sign Language: Acquisition. In E. Lieven (Ed.), Language Acquisition, Vol. 11, Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd Edition, Keith Brown (Ed. in Chief), pp. 291-296. Oxford: Elsevier – nberlove Jan 24 '14 at 19:01
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As deaf people say, they think and have all people in their dreams speaking sign language. Another possibility would be to think in text mode, but I never heard about such cases.

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  • Otavio's answer is correct regarding pure thought, but thoughts often lead to internal dialogues which is what the OP is probably referring to, and here you are correct. – amI Sep 9 '19 at 16:18

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