In what language do deaf people think?

Saw this on the Digg website. I like the article so much that I have to post here.

In what language do deaf people think?

Dear Cecil:

In what language do deaf people think? I think in English, because that’s what I speak. But since deaf people cannot hear, they can’t learn how to speak a language. Nevertheless, they must think in some language. Would they think in English if they use sign language and read English? How would they do that if they’ve never heard the words they are signing or reading pronounced? Or maybe they just see words in their head, instead of hearing themselves? –Cathy, Malvern, Pennsylvania

I’m not going to post the entire article but to highlight some paragraphs.

The profoundly, prelingually deaf can and do acquire language; it’s just gestural rather than verbal. The sign language most commonly used in the U.S. is American Sign Language, sometimes called Ameslan or just Sign. Those not conversant in Sign may suppose that it’s an invented form of communication like Esperanto or Morse code. It’s not. It’s an independent natural language, evolved by ordinary people and transmitted culturally from one generation to the next. It bears no relationship to English and in some ways is more similar to Chinese–a single highly inflected gesture can convey an entire word or phrase.

Wow, who would have thought that our ASL is more similar to Chinese than English!

Sign equips native users with the ability to manipulate symbols, grasp abstractions, and actively acquire and process knowledge–in short, to think, in the full human sense of the term. Nonetheless, “oralists” have long insisted that the best way to educate the deaf is to teach them spoken language, sometimes going so far as to suppress signing. Sacks and many deaf folk think this has been a disaster for deaf people.

It’s our turn to suppress the oralists!

The answer to your question is now obvious. In what language do the profoundly deaf think? Why, in Sign (or the local equivalent), assuming they were fortunate enough to have learned it in infancy. The hearing can have only a general idea what this is like–the gulf between spoken and visual language is far greater than that between, say, English and Russian.

Yet hearing students keep thinking it’s easier to learn ASL than Russian in their high school foreign language requirement. Just because ASL doesn’t have a written form doesn’t mean it’s easy to learn ASL!

I remember one time when I was working for the Nestle Beverage Company in Jacksonville, IL after my senior year in high school. I had two managers and they wanted to learn ASL. One manager was the head of the factory and with his job, he would travel to many countries to do business and meetings, so he knew quite some languages, so he thought it should be easy to learn ASL, being that it’s right on the tip of our fingers instead of our tongue. The other manager was a short friendly guy from Texas with a great sense of humor. He was responsible for internal operations and didn’t travel elsewhere as much as the other manager did. So, suffice to say that he didn’t know another language but English.

Everyday during lunch or office breaks, I’d say hi to both managers and try to strike up a conversation to help teach them some ASL. Ofc, first with ASL fingerspelling, then gradually moving on to learn different signs and build up a vocabulary base. Toward the end of my internship, which manager ends up learning the most? It was the Texan. And the other manager? he was still struggling with sign alphabets. The Texan learned so much that we were able to converse smoothly with a minimal stoppage for interpretations (which sign is that? that kind of question). His sense of humor probably helped as much, for we would always make jokes and laugh.

I learned from this experience as much as they learned ASL and it leads me to believe that people who rely on audio so much—I think that’s called an audiophile?—-that they’re unable to grasp the concept of the language being visual instead of audible. Like the article above, the gulf between ASL and English is greater than English and Russian.

6 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. buzzair

    Very interesting stuff…

    Reminded me of a story that happened to me at my mainstreamed high school.

    A guy I know came up to me in the locker room and he knew I was just started to learn sign language and had deaf friends.

    He asked me, “if Deaf people can’t hear, can they hear themselves think?”

    I looked at him in disbelief. I asked him, “can YOU hear yourself think?, do you actually hear with your ears when your thinking?”

    He laughed at said “no”, and walked away.

  2. MP

    Excellent post- I read the Straight Dope frequently but don’t recall coming across the question you featured.

    Usually, Cecil is right on target with his answers but this one, he’s just a wee bit off- your story about the managers was actually a much more understandable explanation.

    Cecil’s biggest mistake was saying that we use a “gesure” to convey ideas- actually, ASL is nowhere near gestural.

    Maybe you can ask your readers what do they think in? For me, it’s actually spoken English even though I learned sign language first when I was an infant… I still, to this day, can’t explain why- someone did tell me that it may have something to do with me being born hearing. The problem with that? I wasn’t born hearing. :)

    Anyway, thanks for the excellent post. Thanks for stopping by my site and yes, I’m the guy from Gallaudet and RIT who’s happily married.

  3. natech

    Thanks, Posner.

    Hmm, I think whenever I’m writing, ofc, I have to think in English and sometimes, would have some sparks to ASL. “Hey, this English phrase is equilvalent to this ASL!” I really think that Deaf people should take ASL/English translation class because it will help them associate signs to which word. I can’t think of an example at the moment.

    You’re absolutely right about ASL being not gestural but I think Cecil is correct in using the word. I checked the definition in and it says it’s “the act of moving the limbs or body as an expression of thought or emphasis.” which is how we communicate. So, it seems to me that there are two kinds of gesture—the one we would use to communicate with hearing people and another with ASL that we communicate with our hands.

    Glad to hear that you’re happily married. :-)

  4. Pam

    I forwarded this article to my former manager. He asked me this exact same question. I quoted what he replied to this, “Not to argue with the experts, I am not convinced we can’t think without languages. It seems that if the left side of the brain is where language comes from, then the right is useless without the left, in terms of thought, given this assumption. Maybe thinking is being equated with logic here. I was talking with somebody a year or so ago, not deaf, about how she thought and she said she thought in feelings. hmmm. my quest to understand thought continues.”

    Very interesting. Thinking in feelings. Do we really need language to think?

  5. kimmisan

    8O your profile picture is.. half… neked!!! :P hey man! i’m an audiophile. i use my ears (well almost as much as my mouth- and no not in that way dirty one). rather than their dependence on one sense (ears in this example).. i think hindrance to learn a new language is more their inability to think outside of the box. like english cannot be their foundation to new languages. in korean, “i really like that red car” technically becomes “i that red car really like”.. in spanish it’s “i like that car red”.. etc. it’s interesting to bring up the idea of thinking in feelings. when i write.. i think with a voice that puts together an emotion and the sentiment… it’s the challenge and struggle to capture that in the 26 letters of the american alphabet. shrug. but this was a good read. i had to save it till now when i had time to think about it. :-) but i still want to learn how to sign. i hope one of these days.. i’ll finally get an isight to hook up and try. :-) i still think that most important to remember is that we all speak the same language through smiles.. eyes.. and touch. don’t matter where you go in the world. a soft smile, kind eyes and gentle touch- all still mean the same thing. (wow i’m tired).. ok enough blabbering. 8)

  6. natech

    Heh, I decided to change my gravatar after I realize it’s pretty narcissistic of me. ;)

    You brought up an interesting point that English may not be a good foundation for our language, ASL. Never thought about that. :-)

    You just echoed Steven Pinker’s words (a MIT author of the Language Instinct) that it doesn’t matter which language. All language is the same, just that they are interpreted differently but same thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc. He also mentioned that language is a natural instinct, very much like we learn how to walk or for birds to fly.

    Ha, you’re always talking about how tired you are but yeah, know what you mean, heh.

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