When I think, I think in English; my native language.

Whether I am thinking about what I want to eat for lunch, trying to comprehend a physics problem, or thinking about who I want to spend the rest of my life with. I think with words.

How does one think without a learned language?

What is it like to think as a pre-verbal infant?

Yet more anecdotal evidence to support Chomsky's Innate Theory of Language. It does seem that complex and abstract concepts require the use of words. I suppose one can substitute visual imagery and the memory of tactile sensation to some extent, hence the problem-solving abilities of some lower mammals. But I'm no scientist, and what I say should certainly be taken with a grain of salt.

I think without words constantly. It may be part of having a language processing disorder.

The easiest way to move ideas around is to get rid of the words altogether, label them as a thing, and forget the words while using the thing. When you get the things placed correctly, you can pull out the words you need. This thing represents the words, but it is not itself the words. The thing may be a color, a shape, a space, or a line -- it doesn't matter. If you have a clear idea of what the shape represents, it should be clear if it fits with any other shape.

When remembering things, pictures, or 'movies' will work better then words. (Smells are also famous for being remembered, and they are quite difficult to translate into words.) Words would usually be an abstraction, as very little of your sensory input is through words.

Putting thoughts into language is something I do when I have free time. It's not easy... But if a thought stays around for long enough I usually give it a one or two word label, even if it's the wrong word.

I have trouble writing exactly because I don't think only in words. Writing (for me) is not translating my words into what (I hope) are your words, but translating my thoughts into your words. I gather that this is not normal, but it seems that hyperlexic thought processes aren't common either. Most people can't just write what they are thinking without editing; they have words, but still need to shape them to communicate clearly with others.

Addendum -- after six years of noding, I now find writing easy. Darned if I know why, but if I need to think words, I do, and without any trouble (usually). So apparently, practice makes perfect.

The consensus in Cognitive Psychology these days is that language is translated into a kind of pseudo-language called "mentalese" before it is used in thinking. Most people who think this also hold that mentalese is universal -- we are born with it, or the potential to develop it.

For example, evidence for this includes a surprising set of experiments that show that the logical modes available in your native language have no effect on the logical modes with which you can think. (This is an incontravertible empirical refutation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) Chinese dialects, for instance, have no subjunctive case, but unilingual chinese speakers have identical performance to English on reasoning tests that involve "what if" scenarios.

An alternate explanation for ketaset's observations could that the words ketaset thinks ketaset thinks are merely epiphenomena -- by products of thinking that is going on in mentalese. But hey, it's just a theory.

One of the more interesting moments in my life occured when I realized I had started to think in French. This was after about 4 years of classes in middle and high school. The odd thing was I felt my thoughts were limited due to lack of vocabulary. I had to consciously change back to English to think properly.

Then I started acting snooty, wore a beret to school and developed an affinity for baguettes.

Soon after I ended my career as a French student. It was one of the best decisions I've made in my life.

Note: the first and third paragraphs are true, the second was fictionalized for comedic value (Well, except the part about the baguette). I guess you can say this writeup is Based on a true story.

Most of my experiences of thinking without language involve either emotions or sensory input memory.

I am reasonably sure that my emotions can run without language because I've had emotions that I don't have words for in any language I know. One grew so bad I had to give it a name so I could talk about it, but I couldn't explain it in plain language at all until I read some of Anna Wierzbicka's work on a Natural Semantic Metalanguage. (Analyzing it helped me explain it. It's noded at frath.)

I'm also rather sure that my sensory memory doesn't invoke language because, of course, a great deal of our senses aren't hardly begun to be defined in language--what does that smell like? What does that taste like?

(Just a little something for the proponents of the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which I'm otherwise in favor of.)

As I see it most complex thinking is done with one language or another. Then there are the things that have no language to them. I like to try and go through a day without much language. This very rarely happens. :)

It's a really good way to test your mental reflexes. For awhile when I was around 14 I would try to get at least my mornings going without language, that is to say, verbal thinking. I would get up get dressed and go outside and go for a walk. Not once did I think anything to myself. I just did things, walked, climbed, played in the water. No stopping to overthink things. I miss that.

Now everything I do is thought about in my damned infernal contraption of a mind in english. I do math problems and visualize them, I hate that. I like to just look at numbers and know what they are added up without thinking about it too hard. 10+23+80+320+3+233=?. When I can look at those and get the total in 2 or 3 seconds then i'm doing good. Not so much thinking as a reaction to an obstacle. Like walking through trees, tree in your way, go around. Don't think, which way should I go or that way looks easier.
Just go!

A highly subjective writeup on...

the process of thinking

Since I speak a few languages (this, this, this, this and this), I often get asked what language I think in. The person who asked me this was American, when I was about 15 years old. She only spoke English. This made me think a lot. How do you explain these concepts to someone who speaks one language? The result is basically this WU :)

Although there are several good explanations and philosophical / psychological proofs for what I'm about to tell, I have to admit that I can't really understand those explanations. In general, because things tend to get way too technical.

"Proofs" pointing towards that you don't think in a language.

Have you ever:

  1. Had a feeling you couldn't describe?
  2. Wanted to say some idea you've had, but just couldn't do it?
  3. Had to illustrate something you've tried to tell someone, because the words weren't getting you where you wanted?

These three examples are essentially the same: You know there is something you want to convey, but you just can't. The reason for this doesn't have to be that you don't know enough words (although the english language has so many words you're hardly going to know them all), but it might be that there is no word that describes the feeling / emotion / picture you are trying to explain.

The brain-computer

+----------------+ | | | THOUGHT | | | +---+--------+---+ | | +------+--+ +--+----------+ | STORAGE | | TRANSLATOR | +---------+ +-+-----------+ | +-- ENGLISH -----. | >-- OUTPUT (Words) +-- DUTCH -----'


I usually think of my brain and the processes going on in there as a computer. Not because I'm so terribly, horribly smart, but because the processes seem to be much the same. The psychological term used for the process labelled "thought" above is mentalese.

I disagree with the general theory of Mentalese for several reasons, mainly because it does not coincide with my experiences.

Instead of an universal "thought language" that everybody shares, I believe that everyone is equipped with potential to develop their own system of thought. The fact that some people are artists with words, while others are artists with numbers, artists with music, artists in sportsor artists with colours and shapes, and the fact that not all people see those arts, or even recognize numbers or paintings or music as art, proves to me that there is more difference than taste, preference and culture - there must be sheer difference in the way information is stored, processed and expressed.

As seen from the chart above, I don't believe there is a connection between the storage and the translator. In other words; You can't say something without thinking about it first (arguably, you can say something stupid that you regret, but I refuse to believe there is no thought process involved).

Final point

My sister speaks the same array of languages that I do. She has lived in France and gone to the IB (International Baccalaureate) school in Norway. This results in that it is more or less random which language we speak in when there is just the two of us. This has the interesting effect that later, when my mother asks me what we spoke about, I will be able to tell her exactly what we spoke about. I might even quote my sister, but I might quote her in a different language - I can't remember what language we used when talking together.

To me, that proves that information is stored independently from a language.


From an evolutionary point of view, it is hard to believe that thinking would require a language. Even the most primitive lifeforms have had to develop ways of interaction with the three-dimensional world, but the need for a language is not so universal. The time for which humans have had language as we know it, is a mere blink of an eye in the paleontological scale.

Personally, I prefer mind maps and other visual tools to linear text when it comes to notetaking and planning. But I am a writer as well. I have enjoyed writing and storytelling well before I started to delve into efficient notetaking and thinking techniques.

Therefore I don't think language is inferior to, or exclusive of, other forms of thinking. It is a great challenge to squeeze complex, multidimensional meaning through a one-dimensional communication channel. Programmers might recognize the problem of serialization or pickling here. It also parallels with the geek/hacker challenges of pushing a programmable system to its limits and beyond.

To conclude with some computer science analogues: Your brain has massively parallel computing capabilities. Language is a single thread that doesn't take full advantage of your system, but in many cases you can't avoid using it.

My earliest memory is of a time when I couldn't speak. According to my parents, I'd started to speak around the age of 13 months, so this would've been when I was around, hmm, 6-20 months old?

I'm kinda sensitive to acceleration -- you know the feeling in your stomach when you're on a roller coaster ride? Sometimes I get it when people with very similar physical characteristics sitting right next to me don't.

Anyway, this memory involves my mother carrying me in a carriage down the stairs. I distinctly remember a) that feeling in my stomach, b) wishing for it to stop, but c) being unable to communicate this to d) this person carrying me, e) who I love(like?) and trust. I do not remember feeling any fear.

It's not that different from 'thinking with feelings/without words' as other people have pointed out. It's similar to not being able to express yourself due to shortage of words or brain power, or just squeezing the hell out of your significant other in bed in order to express what words cannot.

Note: I know a bit about memories and memory reconstruction, and I'm sure this is a genuine one. I've also thought and spoken about it from the very first time I've 'remembered' it, so hopefully none of the details were added later.

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