Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Language Of Thought

As if by coincidence, The Economist is hosting a debate about whether language we speak influences the way we think only a very short time after I finished reading Steven Pinker's The Stuff Of Thought.

As you may have noticed, I like the book very much. I have found it challenging, thought provoking, and ultimately enlightening. Having read it I could not but agree with Pinker's rejection of the hypothesis that language influences, even determines, the way we think.

Unfortunately, looking at The Economist debate this week, it seems that both me, and Steven Pinker, are in quite a significant minority. As I write this, the voting stands at 76% for, and 24% against. Even worse, it is the opinion of The Economist that language does indeed "shape the way we think". I truly expected more from this otherwise excellent publication.

Now, I can never hope to even come close to presenting as good an argument against this notion as Steven Pinker. As a matter of fact, I won't even try. What I will try to do here, however, is describe why I am now even more convinced that language does not influence the way we think, and it won't have anything to do with how Steven Pinker sweat-talked me into it. No, what his book did do was make me think about this, and ultimately conduct an ongoing experiment to try and find out for myself if the truth lies one way or the other.

The experiment is, fittingly, a purely thought based one, and you can do it yourself, too. In fact, you are doing it all the time anyway, possibly without being consciously aware of the results and their significance. Which is not to say it's necessarily easy to make oneself fully aware of the way one's mind works when it comes to the relationship between thought and language. It is probably the very fact that the language does not shape our thoughts that makes it so. But, first things first. Let me now tell you how it's done...

First of all, there is no doubt whatsoever that we all "talk to ourselves" while we think about something. We all "vocalise", silently, most (but not all!) of our thoughts. But, if you look into your own mind carefully, you may notice that these words tend to come only after a certain conclusion has been reached, and we are preparing to let the world know. To let the world know, we need to put our thoughts into words, and most of us will, most of the time, "rehearse" silently.

Now, having "heard" ourselves in our heads we may realise we need to say the same thing better, or we may realise that our reasoning was not quite right in the first place. In either case we may, as it were, go back to the drawing board and try again. Then, having tried again, we will yet again "vocalise", and once we're happy we'll say it out loud or write it down for someone else's benefit.

However, one thing we do not do is have "debates" with ourselves in order to reach conclusions or decisions. The reasoning bit happens before and between "vocalisations", i.e. before and between shoehorning our thoughts into words, i.e. into language. That we are usually not aware of this non-verbal part is probably explainable by that part taking much less time, and also by the fact that to tell the world about it we need to put it into words, and there are actually no words to do it the activity being, as it were, non-verbal in the first place. It's not unlike one being unable to see one's own eyes (existence of mirrors notwithstanding).

For example, when I am thinking about the best way of spending the New Year's Eve (this being a very immediate "problem" right now) and how to argue for and against various options with the people I want to spend it with, I am most definitely not coming to my own conclusions and plans by talking to myself in any language (having two to choose from). By the time I am "vocalising" my thoughts so I can best persuade my thoughts, opinions, plans, and decisions are already there. I have not had a long internal monologue in which I in turn played myself and the devil's advocate. In fact, if I try and "observe" this particular mental activity I can just about notice an amorphous, evasive, vague, "blob" of mental activity the result of which are aforementioned "vocalisations". Also, if I find I'm unhappy with the way I plan to present my case, there's another fleeting "blob" of non-verbal mental activity before I have another, hopefully better, set of verbal arguments ready to be presented to the world.

Another example is this very post. Yes, I "rehearsed" a significant part of it while I walked to work this morning, but that was most definitely not the occasion on which I formed or shaped my views on the matter. Quite to the contrary, the very first thing there was during my walk this morning was another, in this case bigger, "blob" of thought, reflection, and what have you, that culminated in a decision to make it into this blog post. One thing that absolutely did not happen this morning was a thought - in any language - that "sounded" like "let's write a blog post about...". The only verbalisations were, for want of a better word, "template" sentences, which were in turn attempts to present my thoughts in the best possible way, and had literally nothing to do with coming up or shaping the thought itself.

Now, having said all this, let me tell you how I think language we speak actually does shape thoughts. And I genuinely think it does, even if it may sound like a silly thing to say after the tirade above. Let me explain - it's going to be quick and easy, I promise.

It's simple really. Language we speak does influence and shape the thoughts - of others. The language we use is the only tool we have to confer our thoughts to others, and in turn influence the way they think. And in this activity we may be more or less skilled, with different skill levels for spoken and written word, too. And, for various reasons, some languages may be easier - but not necessarily better - for conveying a thought on a particular topic.

But, the notion that the language(s) we speak shape, influence, even determine the way in which we, ourselves, (can) think about a particular subject is manifestly not true, and it's easy to make yourself realise it, too. You just need to allow yourself to put the effort in the experiment described above.

Oh, and you must not be afraid of the dark. Because the non-verbal engine of your mind is a "dark" place. Especially if you're prone to crutches...

The very last link (above) was meant to point to a posting about how religion is just a crutch for those who are afraid to face the world as it is. I was dead sure I wrote one just like that. Unfortunately, it transpires I haven't, even if I probably mentioned this particular point of view. Therefore, the link goes to what I thought is the post closest to the one I haven't written, and I hereby promise I will try and write a proper one one of these days...


Another argument against "language shapes thought" come from the fact that being fluent in two unrelated languages I do not find that somehow I come to different conclusions depending on which one I choose for silent "vocalisations" as described above. In fact I choose one over the other for these "rehearsals" based on my intended audience, not any reason potentially related to the "quality" of thought. Thus, when I thought of New Year's Eve I thought in Serbian, seeing as I'll need to discuss this with my S.O. On the other hand, my "drafting" of this post went on in English, the intended target expression language. Neither choice means I need to in any way "re-think" either issue if, or more likely when, I discuss them in a different language. And, more importantly, my views will not be changed by a single iota depending on the language I use in these discussions.

I am aware of the critique that can be levelled against all of the above: how do I know that the language(s) I speak have not influenced my thought "blob" before it spurned into action and spat out a result for me to put into words. For a proper scientific explanation you'll have to go and read some proper scientific literature on the subject. For a popular (even if not too easily digestible) introduction you could do (much) worse than the Pinker's The Stuff Of Thought. Otherwise, I urge you to just try the experiment yourself, and give the issue a little bit of (deep) thought.

And this is where I stop adding to this already overly long post...