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Curious Kids: how did humans think about things, before they had language to think with?

You don’t actually need language to think. bluelela/Shutterstock.

How did humans think about things, before they had language to think with? – Katie, aged 11, Sydney, Australia.

When we think, most of us have the feeling that words flow through our minds. If you stop to “listen” to your own thoughts, though, you will be amazed by how jumbled and chaotic they are. Our inner voice is something of an inner mumbler, creating a stream of disconnected words and phrases, rather than crystal-clear speech.

It is easy to imagine that we think in whatever language we speak – whether English, Spanish or Mandarian. But this is entirely wrong: language can express some of the results of our thinking, but it’s not the thinking itself.

Get it?

For example, think about what happens when you “get” a joke – like this award-winning joke by comedian Tim Vine:

I’ve decided to sell my hoover … well, it was just collecting dust.

Whether you laugh or groan (I rather like it), you need to do a lot of thinking to figure about what the joke even is.

You’ll need to remember that “collecting dust” is usually a snide remark about something that just sits in a cupboard, unused, so that dust settles on top of it. And you’ll realise that hoovers are made especially to suck up or collect dust, so it’s silly to criticise them for doing that. And that’s why the joke is funny.

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You must have reasoned along these lines, or you wouldn’t have “got” the joke. But I bet you reacted to the joke long before you had thought about what it meant using words.

Instant lols. Galina Kovalenko/Shutterstock.

And that is always true: the thoughts come first, and the expression of our thoughts in words, whether out loud, or in our heads, comes later and much more slowly – if at all.

Another example is the complex thinking you need to do when playing a fast-moving video game. You might sometimes say “oh no!” or “got you!” as you play, but if I were to try and make you say all your plans out loud in words, you would slow to a snail’s pace.

Smart species

So we can, and do, think about things without language, all the time. I don’t think in English, but I can report some of my thoughts in English, when I have the time to do so.

And it turns out that people who have aphasia – which means they sometimes can’t use or understand language, perhaps because they had a stroke – can do difficult maths, problem solving and reasoning tasks, so long, of course, as these don’t involve language.

You can test this yourself, by shutting down your inner voice. Simply repeat a single word quickly, either out loud or in your head – a trick psychologists call “articulatory suppression”.

You’ll find that while you’re repeating the word, you can no longer think using words, but you can still plan, reason and imagine, pretty much as normal.

But even though we don’t think in language, it does help us make our thoughts clear. In fact, the real magic of language is that it helps us share our thoughts with other people.

This means we don’t have to face the world all by ourselves – we can learn from the cleverness of the generations who have gone before us. This lets humans develop the really complicated scientific theories, laws, financial systems, histories and stories that make our lives so incredibly rich.

So we can, and do, think without language. But the invention of language is the special trick that makes us so amazingly smart as a species.

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