Thought without symbols — life without language — it’s a cognitive reality that is virtually impossible for most modern humans to fathom. For the vast majority of us, our thought processes have been profoundly shaped by the introjection of language into our cognitive worlds, the taking on board of a massive intellectual prosthesis, the collective product of countless generations. Human thought, for the majority, is not simply the individual outcome of our evolved neural architecture, but also the result of our borrowing of the immense symbolic and intellectual resources available in language. What would human thought be like without language?
The question of the relationship between language and ‘mind’ (a word I hate using), or between symbolic resources and cognitive abilities (there, that’s equally vague!), is philosophically intriguing, but hard to address in anything other than the hypothetical.
Herodotus tells the story of the Pharoah Psammetichus (Psamtik I), who allegedly gave two newborn children to a shepherd to raise without language, taking care of them and paying close attention to their first words. Psammethicus hoped to learn which language was the oldest, which one infant allegedly revealed by calling for ‘bekos,’ the Phrygian word for ‘bread.’ In fact, most historically recorded cases of feral children, however, suggest that they do not develop any language ability at all, perhaps even failing to develop symbolic abilities (or maybe not enough researchers speak Phrygian).
We might try to imagine thinking without language, but, of course, we’d be doing that with language itself. In my own work, I’m interested in thought — or maybe I should say perception and action — that is only partially rendered into language (high speed, perceptually-driven decision making and action in sports). But what would thought be like for those without language?
The rare case of individuals without language offers some potential window in on life across the intellectual Rubicon, if we had developed mentally without immersing ourselves in the shared symbols and communicative reality of language. Although we tend to think that only those who are profoundly intellectually disabled, criminally neglected or raised by non-humans fail to learn language, in fact, adolescents and adults without language may not be as rare as we think. Author Susan Schaller has written about the case of a profoundly deaf Mexican immigrant who grew up in a house with hearing parents who could not teach him sign language in her book, Man without Words.
The website, Works and Conversations, has a discussion of Schaller’s story, how she became interested in sign language through a fluke accident, but especially her work with Ildefonso, who had grown up without learning sign language or any other form of communication. The piece, Leap of Faith, the Story of a Contemporary Miracle, was written by Richard Whittaker in 2009 (although I only recently came across it). It’s a fascinating interview, and, although I may disagree with Schaller in certain ways, I think her story of trying to teach Ildefonso, not merely sign language, but the symbolic process itself, is absolutely fascinating.
Schaller meets Ildefonso
In the interview, Schaller describes how she originally became fascinated with sign language, when she happened into the very first lectures held in sign language by Lou Fant in 1972 in a course called ‘Visual Poetry.’ Hit by a catering truck near the end of high school, Schaller had been excused from her classes so she took the opportunity to sneak into college classes that sounded interesting at Cal State Northridge. She was so moved by what she saw that she wound up joining a volunteer signing drama group even though, as she puts it, she knew three signs when she signed up.
If you want more of Schaller’s story, I suggest you go to the original interview, or better yet, her book, but Schaller eventually wound up quite committed to signing. Asked to work as a sign interpreter, Schaller found herself in a class for ‘Reading skills’ that was little more than a warehouse for all the deaf students, no matter what their educational needs. In the midst of a swarm of signing and movement, she spotted an individual, clearly deaf, who was also clearly unable to sign:
I went to the door to walk out and was actually turning the handle to leave, when I see this man who looked so frightened. He was holding himself as if he were wearing a straightjacket. He was backed up in a corner, protecting himself. I saw that he was studying mouths, he was studying people. Even though he was frightened, he was still watching: what is happening, what is happening?
She observed as another aide, one who couldn’t sign very well, tried to reach the frightened man. When the other assistant gave up, Schaller tried to engage the man and his true situation started to dawn on her:
I walked up to him and signed, “Hello. My name is Susan.” He tried to copy that and did a sloppy rendition of “Hello, my name is Susan.” Obviously he didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t language. And I was shocked.
He looked Mayan and I thought, well, if he knew Mexican sign language, he wouldn’t try to copy. That’s not a normal thing to do, even if you don’t know the language. I couldn’t walk away. I slowly figured out that this man had no language. As I said, I could see that he was very intelligent. I could see he was trying very hard. I was twenty-two years old. I had no idea of what I was doing. I was faced with how to communicate the idea of language to someone without language.
The man she would call, ‘Ildefonso,’ had figured out how to survive, in part by simply copying those around him, but he had no idea what language was. Schaller found that he observed people’s lips and mouth moving, unaware that they were making sound, unaware that there was sound, trying to figure out what was happening from the movements of the mouths. She felt that he was frustrated because he thought everyone else could figure things out from looking at each others’ moving mouths.
One problem for Schaller’s efforts was that Ildefonso’s survival strategy, imitation, actually got in the way of him learning how to sign because it short-circuited the possibility of conversation. As she puts it, Ildefonso acted as if he had a kind of visual echolalia (we sometimes call it ‘echopraxia’), simply copying the actions he saw:
He’d just try to form signs and copy what I was doing. But his facial expression was always, is this what I’m supposed to do?
That question was on his face all of the time. It was terribly frustrating. It went on hour after hour, for days and days and days. Then I had an idea. If I died tonight, I may have had only one truly brilliant thought in my life. What was it that attracted me to this man? His intelligence and his studiousness, the fact he was still trying to figure things out-those two things.
I decided to stop talking to him. Instead, I taught an invisible student. I set up a chair, and I started being the teacher to an invisible student in an empty chair. Then I became the student. I would get into the other chair and the student would answer the teacher. I did this over and over and over. And I ignored him. I stopped looking at him.
Even with the ‘brilliant idea,’ the road ahead was hard, and Schaller talks about wondering when one of them was going to give up. Finally, they had a breakthrough moment which I want to quote at length because it really is a remarkable story (I got goosebumps from reading it):
What happened is that I saw a movement. I stopped. I was talking to an empty chair, but out of my peripheral vision I saw something move. I look at Ildefonso and he had just become rigid! He actually sat up in his chair and became rigid. His hands were flat on the table and his eyes were wide. His facial expression was different from any I’d seen. It was just wide with amazement!
And then he started-it was the most emotional moment with another human being, I think, in my life so that even now, after all these years, I’m choking up [pauses]-he started pointing to everything in the room, and this is amazing to me! I’ve thought about this for years. It’s not having language that separates us from other animals, it’s because we love it! All of a sudden, this twenty-seven-year-old man-who, of course, had seen a wall and a door and a window before-started pointing to everything. He pointed to the table. He wanted me to sign table. He wanted the symbol. He wanted the name for table. And he wanted the symbol, the sign, for window.
The amazing thing is that the look on his face was as if he had never seen a window before. The window became a different thing with a symbol attached to it. [emphasis added, GD] But it’s not just a symbol. It’s a shared symbol. He can say “window” to someone else tomorrow who he hasn’t even met yet! And they will know what a window is. There’s something magical that happens between humans and symbols and the sharing of symbols.
That was his first “Aha!” He just went crazy for a few seconds, pointing to everything in the room and signing whatever I signed. Then he collapsed and started crying, and I don’t mean just a few tears. He cradled his head in his arms on the table and the table was shaking loudly from his sobbing. Of course, I don’t know what was in his head, but I’m just guessing he saw what he had missed for twenty-seven years.
Schaller argues that this is the ‘first breakthrough about what language is’: “Oh, everything has a name!” (from her account).
The account is powerful and moving, I find, and Schaller says that it changed both of their lives. For Ildefonso, he didn’t just learn that ‘things have names’ (at least in a given linguistic community), he simultaneously changed the way he thought and joined a community of people who can think in ways that are intimately tied to each other. The breakthrough was both internal and external, simultaneously cognitive and social.
For Schaller, the experience stuck with her, and she eventually sought out work on language-less adults. She couldn’t find anything, so she sent a letter to Oliver Sachs, who much eventually undergo apotheosis as the patron saint of the quirky and well-written account of psychopathology and neurological injury. Sachs wanted to meet her and told her, ‘You must write this down! In DETAIL!’ Sachs eventually wrote the preface to her book about Ildefonso.
The plight of the language-less
How many people are language-less? I have no idea, but Schaller does some hypothetical estimates that I found pretty shocking.
The first book is about one languageless person I met. But many people have treated him as a freak, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And I knew this happens all the time. About 10% of the population in the world, on average, is born with some sort of hearing impairment. Out of that ten percent, one percent is profoundly deaf. That’s a basic statistic, but the really sad statistic is that 92% of all profoundly deaf people are born to hearing parents. Only 8% are lucky enough to be born to signing parents. So they have no handicap!
I doubt very much that her last point is accurate, but the key to this paragraph is to think about the numbers. Even if you start adjusting down the numbers she’s using — for example, suggesting that more than 8% of profoundly deaf children have parents who might be willing to learn sign language — you still have a very significant irreducible number of people who are likely to be language-less substantially into adolescence or beyond. I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of this field, but I’d be fascinated to hear from someone who works in the area, for instance, with recently immigrated deaf individuals coming from developing countries where they might not have sign language communities.
In the absence of a sign-supporting community, deaf individuals likely can only develop rudimentary sign systems if they’re isolated from other deaf people; since no one else will be using the deaf person’s signs as a first language, it will likely have a reduced grammar and simple structure, at best. That is, if anyone is willing to sign to the unfortunate isolated individual at all – the tragic and disturbing fact is, as Schaller highlights, some groups are ideological opposed to making concessions, demanding that deaf individuals try to adapt to an unmoved (and unmoving) hearing population.
There are examples of communities of deaf people spontaneously inventing new sign languages, but the case of a profoundly deaf individual in a hearing community, isolated from other individuals struggling to communicate visually, would offer little opportunity for this kind of innovation (see, for example, the case of Nicaraguan Sign Language, discussed here and here). Deprived of communication and symbolic interaction, it’s unclear how a personal language could really develop the stability or systematicity it would need to become a true language (Wittgenstein, for example, says that the idea of a private language is incoherent).
What is it like to live without language? Unfortunately, Ildefonso doesn’t help us too much with that:
It’s another frustration that Ildefonso doesn’t want to talk about it. For him, that was the dark time. Whenever I ask him, and I’ve asked him many, many times over the years, he always starts out with the visual representation of an imbecile: his mouth drops, his lower lip drops, and he looks stupid. He does something nonsensical with his hands like, “I don’t know what’s going on.” He always goes back to “I was stupid.”
It doesn’t matter how many times I tell him, no, you weren’t exposed to language and… The closest I’ve ever gotten is he’ll say, “Why does anyone want to know about this? This is the bad time.” What he wants to talk about is learning language.
Schaller is also passionate about the human rights of the deaf, and deeply critical of the movement to mainstream deaf children to the detriment of sign language learning. For example, the use of cochlear implants with deaf children can be seen as directly undermining the possibility that deaf kids will find a place in a signing community although it increases their chances of getting by in the majority hearing community. With the implants, children’s language development can be significantly delayed from what it would be with sign; it’s particularly ironic because kids can learn to sign quicker and earlier than they can learn to speak.
The use of cochlear implants and speech-only teaching methods, forcing children to, as much as possible, learn to lip read or build upon whatever artificially-enhanced hearing they might be able to get, is especially controversial in the deaf community. I had an MAA (Master of Applied Anthropology) student who did fascinating research on the deaf community in Australia, and she found that many members felt that their community was dying at the hands of these technologies and teaching ideologies (this is all particularly ironic because my home university, Macquarie, is a centre for research on cochlear implants).
In fact, I can see both sides of this argument although I favour the use of sign language; I worked as a teaching aide in a school for the deaf, and once upon a time, could hold my own in sign. For parents of deaf children, however, it must seem terrifying to have a child who will fundamentally live in a different community, within a deaf subculture, perhaps with diminished opportunities, justifying virtually any intervention. Schaller calls these interventions human rights violations: ‘What I see more and more is that the hearing world has completely medicalized this situation [being deaf]. I’m not saying parents are bad, but they are being influenced by the “experts,” and they are blind.’
In fact, she’s right on a number of levels, and fear of another person’s marginalization never justifies attempting to eradicate what makes them different: the same logic can lead to repression of children’s non-normal sexuality, suppression of minority languages or cultures and a host of other ‘interventions’ that just seek to make people ‘normal’ for their own good. But before I start down this road (and in to material I teach in my human rights classes), I want to get back to the question of cognition.