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The Language of Thought

22 Apr 2020

I’ve been dwelling for a while on the following quesiton: how do we think? Sometime in the past couple of years, I had a conscious realization that when I think, I’m often talking inside my head, actually articulating thoughts in English, while on the other hand, when doing a math problem for example, that narration often meshes with an incomprehensive, numeric set of thoughts. I then asked myself, do people who speak in different languages think in different languages? This was confirmed when I asked my dad, a Hungarian immigrant, what language he thinks in. To this he responded, “When I’m in America, I think in English. When I’m in Hungary, I think in Hungarian. But most of the time, I think in ideas rather than words.”

It seems to me that inner thought is likely by default, language-less, as incomprehensible firings within our brain that aren’t surfaced as inner monologues. In fact, there are individuals who have no inner monologues - they don’t speak within their heads, but they definitely still have adequate thinking ability, and are able to communicate those thoughts externally with language. This suggests that there is no default language necessary for thought; rather, we can use the languages to structure our thoughts and describe them aloud, and in a similar way, we can use those languages as frameworks to structure those thoughts within our heads and articulate them to ourselves.

The Language of Thought Hypothesis

As I am writing this post, I’ve stumbled upon the Language of Thought Hypothesis (I actually named this post similarly by coincidence!). This thinking has been around for centuries, and has recently been revitalized by a piece called The Language of Thought(1975) by Jerry Fodor. This hypothesis essentially describes Mentalese, a proposed default structure of thinking that exists innately, rather than by acquisition (while we develop language by acquisition). In relation to language, the hypothesis dictates that in order to understand and use a language, we have to learn it’s meaning in terms of Mentalese. For example, when learning the English word cat, we have to digest it as the Mentalese concept of cat. From there, we can think and use the English word of cat while our lower level thought engine constructs thoughts using the concept cat. While I don’t fully understand the hypothesis, I think I’ll continue to come back and read it every once in a while.

While language isn’t necessary for thought, there seems to be support for the idea that using language heightens our ability for thought. After Outliers, I finished Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, then Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Stealing Fire and Blink focus primarily on unconscious thinking, and while both have an emphasis on the importance of utilizing and honing unconscious thought where we mainly use conscious thought, as those functions of the brain seem to be much more powerful information engines than we have realized. Kotler and Wheal discuss how techniques to alter our state of consciousness, whether through psychedelics, extreme sports, or meditation, in order to activate these powerful pathways. However, I want to emphasize sections of Blink and Outliers that touch on the importance of language.

One of the many case studies described in Blink features two professional food tasters, who have trained over two decades to hone their palettes. While the average consumer can consistently choose a brand of jam that they believe is better than another, it’s incredibly hard to describe why. Even weirder: in tests where they were asked to describe why a jam is better than another, they deviated from that original (presumably correct) ranking of the jams. Testing their ability to describe their thinking and senses jumbled their thoughts up. On the other hand, these tasters are taught a very specific vocabulary, which when trained against, allows them to accurately describe their reactions to food. Something that I’ve believed for a while is that in order to accurately generate and describe new thoughts, we have to have the proper vocabulary as a framework to structure them, and I think this is a relevant example of that.

I’ll end with what I thought was one of the most interesting phenomenon touched upon in Outliers. For context, China has become consistently dominant in global mathematics standards and competitions for children (the American teams for math competitions are also often completely Asian-American children). While an argument could be made for simply a better work ethic, there is likely more below the surface. Our short term memory has a certain size capacity, which is extremely important for learning. As it turns out, in Chinese, numbers are single syllable, which means that when trying to remember a sequence of numbers, Chinese speaking cultures were able to remember far more digits than English speakers. Additionally, the number system in Chinese is very logical: take the number 13 for instance. In English, a child learning 13 has to associate it with the word “thirteen,” while in Chinese, a child as to associate 13 with ‘shi san’, literally ‘ten three’. Because these numbers are more logical and shorter to pronounce, they are easier to remember. This means it takes less time for kids to learn their numbers, which is a huge hurdle early on. They’re more inclined to study math because it is more logical with respect to the language they learn it in. So it is the Chinese language itself that can account for some of the advantages kids from China have in succeeding in math.

I’ve burned through my brain writing this, so I think I’ll end class here.

See you next class,

Prof M.