I always thought I thought in English. But in The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker is teaching me that might not be the case. So the question I always asked – What do the thoughts of people speaking other languages sound like? – is more complex than it needs to be. What I should have been asking is: What do thoughts sound like? or perhaps more accurately, What do thoughts look like?.
Pinker’s argument for non-verbal thought (mentalese) begins with the problem of ambiguity. Consider the word “mean”, which can be a verb, adjective, or noun and is pronounced and spelled the same way for all parts of speech. In context we realize that a mathematical mean means something different than a mean dog. Pinker lists ambiguous newspaper headlines like, Child’s Stool Great for Use in Garden, and concludes that if we can have two distinct thoughts for the same word then thoughts can’t be words.
From what I understand so far, the basic idea is that we see an object often enough to form a mental concept of it, even if we don’t know what to call the object or, in the case of young children, have yet to fully acquire language. For instance, we know to call this object:
“ball,” but it would be recognizable as what it is even if, for whatever reason, we weren’t able to recall the precise word for it. A toddler will recognize it for what it is based on the sensory information it provides from her previous experience with it, again, even if she isn’t able to form words for that sensory information (red, round, bouncy, fun).
If you ever get tongue-tied or just have a bad memory, then you might have experienced a loss for words when trying to tell a friend about…that…thing, you know, that the doctor puts on your chest to listen to your heart. That’s it! A stethoscope! You knew what you were trying to say. You had a mental picture of it but just couldn’t get the word out. What’s more is that your friend had to have a similar mental picture of a stethoscope to decipher the exact object you were describing and then name it for you.
And it seems that if thoughts were language-based then Japanese speaking people would think in a completely different, if almost alien, way than English speaking people. And what about bilingual people? I’m sure any English-speaking Japanese person or Japanese-speaking English person can tell you that their bilingualism has not caused warring thought processes. A ball is the same object in any language.
I haven’t finished the book yet, but I already agree with the concept of mentalese. But I also think language is closely tied to that mentalese. For example, when I’m trying to think of a solution to a problem, I tell myself to “think, think, think” or ask “what am I going to do?”. In fact, internal dialogue constantly flows through my mind every waking moment. Maybe Pinker will have an explanation for internal dialogue somewhere in the rest of his book.