Or, “Do Babies Think?”
Some philosophers argue that we can’t think without language. If that’s true, then babies don’t think.
However, is that true?
The answer is yes and no. Thought and language are not one and the same. Most thoughts we have are not linguistic in nature, and even thoughts we do have about language seem to have a pre-linguistic mental schema.
As an infant, the brain is pure sensory input. You know how you usually can’t remember anything before age 2? One of the most prominent theories in child development concerning this phenomenon has to do with language development. The theory states that as language is learned the brain is restructured and memories are stored using language.
In the book “A Man Without Words” by Susan Schaller first published in 1991 is a case study of a 27-year-old deaf man whom Schaller teaches to sign for the first time, challenging the Critical Period Hypothesis that humans cannot learn language after a certain age.
The best examples we have of this situation come from feral children who have grown up deprived of language contact. Don’t listen to anyone who says that pathological cases make bad examples, because they are our only non-anecdotal examples. Let me make a crucial distinction early on here that this is different from language deprived children who still grew up in a linguistically rich environment, such as deaf children growing up with speaking parents who do not know a sign language.
What typically happens is they develop what we call home-signing. This is different from actual sign language because it is not a complete and grammatically bound linguistic system. Think of it like when soldiers use hand signals in the field. It gets a general message but is not as refined as actual language.
What this shows us is that the capacity for language is innate, and thus inseparably tied to our ability to think.
As we speak linguists and psychologists are busy working on understanding this subject better. Think of language as the doorway into the mind, and if that door is locked then we can only guess what’s inside.