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What language does the brain use?

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4:29 pm on Sep 20, 2007 (gmt 0)

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This thought occoured to me in a discussion with a friend of mine.

We speak in English. Thus when we think, or at least when I think, it's in English. You think 'I'd could really do with a jam doughnut right about now'.

If I became fluent in another language, would I begin to think in that language, or would I constantly translate my own thoughts? Maybe one of you guys can answer that one.

But how about this, before we learn to talk, what language do we think in?

4:39 pm on Sep 20, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Binary. :)
4:39 pm on Sep 20, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I think that language is just an adaption to our underlying thought processes which allows us to communicate those thoughts. The fact that we also use language to think is just a manifestation of us organising our underlying thought processes into words automatically, almost 'in case we need to say them' or 'out of force of habit'.

When you, habitually, translate underlying thought processes into Japanese, you will 'think' in Japanese. If you start to live in an English speaking country and speak only English for some years, you may well start to 'think' in English because that will be your brain's learnt response to having thoughts.

As in classical neural theory, the brain organises itself dynamically to make the processes which are most frequently requested easier and eventually automatic.

Languages as you think of them aren't the only languages you speak. When you drive your car, so long as you've not recently started driving, you speak a language of gears, steering and pedals in response to your thoughts and dialogue with the road ahead. No real difference.

5:47 pm on Sep 20, 2007 (gmt 0)

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If I became fluent in another language, would I begin to think in that language, or would I constantly translate my own thoughts? Maybe one of you guys can answer that one.

We think in the language we speak in. Spend a long time in a place speaking a different language, and you will find yourself dreaming and thinking in that language.

It happened to me once.

Matt

6:09 pm on Sep 20, 2007 (gmt 0)

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and what happens with toddlers? because toddlers don't have a complete language at their disposal - all they've got are a few disjointed words. so do they think in just those words?

what if they don't know the words for 'tree', 'cucumber' and 'carrot'. does that mean they can't think about trees, cucumbers and carrots?

they probably just think in pictures instead. after all, you could imagine something now which doesn't exist, and has no word, but that doesn't stop you from thinking about it.

7:43 pm on Sep 20, 2007 (gmt 0)

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you will find yourself dreaming and thinking in that language.

It happened to me once.

I hope for your sake it wasn't French.

what if they don't know the words for 'tree', 'cucumber' and 'carrot'. does that mean they can't think about trees, cucumbers and carrots

I suppose if I thought about something and I didn't know what it was called, I'd use words I knew to think about it. For example, if I didn't know what a tree was I would think about green and big. But if I didn't know the words green or big.......

7:51 pm on Sep 20, 2007 (gmt 0)

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What's wrong with French? ;) I live and work in a bilingual environment (English/French), I think (and dream) in both languages depending on the context. The biggest problem is when you forget which language you are supposed to be using, I find it happens often!
8:09 pm on Sep 20, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Matt is right. The primary language which you use to communicate, itself influences the way you think and how you conceptualise things. When you learn to speak other languages you learn how to express concepts simply which you cannot easily express in your own tongue. This broadens the mind to no small degree.

what if they don't know the words for 'tree', 'cucumber' and 'carrot'. does that mean they can't think about trees, cucumbers and carrots

It's all just vegetation. At which the toddler will point and excitedly shout "Apple!" or somesuch.

Think of what we call "sand" or "snow". Now think how many words an Inuit has for snow and how many a Bedouin has for sand.

Dabrowski> If you are interested in this sort of thing, I would recommend the very lucidly written "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker.

11:18 am on Sep 21, 2007 (gmt 0)

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an Inuit

A what?

a Bedouin

A what?

There can't be that many words for snow and sand. They're not exactly very varied artices. It's not as if they come in different makes/models/colours/sizes.

11:25 am on Sep 21, 2007 (gmt 0)

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The Inuit language contains 15 identified 'words' (more accurately roots) to describe types or forms of snow.

Bedouin apparently have 31 words for sand.

I cannot find any information about the number of Inuit words which describe sand; nor the number of Bedouin words which describe snow.

12:24 pm on Sep 21, 2007 (gmt 0)

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There can't be that many words for snow

[well.com...]

12:57 pm on Sep 21, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I started being better at learning languages in my youth when I started understanding that I don't actually think in a language. Over time I worked at unplugging the words and dealing more in concepts, this stopped me having to translate just before things came out of my mouth and allowed my french (at that time) make large forward leaps.

It isn't always possible, some things need specific words and you can adjust the language you use in your head to the language you are speaking.

This has helped me with programming as well, they are just other languages. In turn, learning to reduce programming languages to basic concepts has helped me with written/spoken languages.

but that's just me ;)

7:43 pm on Sep 21, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Actually jatar_k, you're dead right there. I've used loads of languages, all the way back to DOS and Basic, before that on my Speccy!

Once you understand the concept of coding, a new language is very easy to learn. I guess the same is probably true with spoken languages.

1:03 am on Sep 22, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Once you understand the concept of coding, a new language is very easy to learn. I guess the same is probably true with spoken languages.

Spot on. The trickiest thing about learning your first foreign language - I realised some time back as I was studying my third and fourth - is that you're actually learning two things simultaneously: how to communicate in that language and how to learn a new language.

Without being told, it doesn't become clear that you are actually learning the second skill until you are on to learning your second or third foreign languages.

But the second skill is the real nut to crack. Once you are reasonably competent at it, learning additional languages is simply a question of process.

7:19 pm on Sep 22, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I started being better at learning languages in my youth when I started understanding that I don't actually think in a language.

jatar_k, I speak three languages (not that the other two are very significant) but anyway they are languages, and what I learned from learning those languages is that you need to find a way to visualize things and then say it appropriately on the right language.

Binary. :)

Something like that :)

4:31 pm on Sep 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Anyone speak a dead language? Latin? Ancient Greek? Welsh?

Actually I heard that Latin was trying to make a comeback, with some fancy schools teaching it.

5:20 pm on Sep 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Heaven help you if there are any Welsh people here, Dabrowski.
6:43 pm on Sep 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Bore da!

A Texan now, but my family roots are mostly firmly in Wales. :)

For those interested in this subject, a great book is Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct" or his more general text, "How the Mind Works." Pinker is a great writer on subjects of the mind, and these works are accessible to all who have taken basic science classes.

Jim

8:59 pm on Sep 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Last night I had a dream in javascript...

and what I learned from learning those languages is that you need to find a way to visualize things and then say it appropriately on the right language.

Exactly. That was one of those things I only learned after finishing school when I started to learn how to learn. Which I think should be the most important subject in school but is not even taught.

It is quite simply - if you learn foreign words by translating for example the English word into the French word you are making a detour. Because you are connecting for example the French word "pomme" with the English word "apple" instead of the object "apple".

That's the reason why children learn languages more easily than many adults. The trick is they are connecting the word in the foreign language directly with the object, not with an abstract word like you are taught in school when you are given a list of words to learn.

Or visualized if O stands for the object apple there is a difference in the brain between:

O -> apple -> pomme

and

apple <- O -> pomme

8:26 pm on Sep 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Heaven help you if there are any Welsh people here, Dabrowski

LOL! I'm sure there are, or I wouldn't have said it! I welcome people poking fun at me, bring it on! ;)

Last night I had a dream in javascript

Hmmm, you need to spend less time in front of your computer.

apple <- O -> pomme

I see what you mean by that example, in fact, if I was writing a complex data structure in Perl, I would probably use the same method, as O -> apple -> pomme is more system intensive, in the same way that it takes the brain longer to translate like that.

9:56 pm on Sep 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Usually images, which then connects with different associations of the image as in sound, smell, touch, language, and so on... there's a reason an image, usually with a sound is always used in marketing, and not an essay... perception is instinctive, thinking isn't.
11:08 pm on Sep 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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For those interested in this subject, a great book is Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct" or his more general text, "How the Mind Works." Pinker is a great writer on subjects of the mind, and these works are accessible to all who have taken basic science classes.

His newest book is "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature" - very interesting stuff with great examples. (just started reading it)

LisaB

1:19 pm on Sep 25, 2007 (gmt 0)

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usually with a sound is always used in marketing

You mean like, whenever we hear "Bink! Bing bing bing bong!" we think of Intel?

1:28 pm on Sep 25, 2007 (gmt 0)

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just thought I'd add to the chorus of Steven Pinker recommendations. The guy is my hero. A brilliant man and an entertaining writer.
9:47 am on Oct 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Couldn't resist this topic. I lerarned my mother tongue after I learned a foreign language. Now there is more to just words its the expressions as well they are so important.
9:58 am on Oct 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I lerarned my mother tongue after I learned a foreign language

Yea that is pretty much the same thing with me. Infact, I began learning the language at the age of 11.

Btw, Welcome to WebmasterWorld, Threasa.

Habtom

6:01 pm on Oct 8, 2007 (gmt 0)

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As usual, I'm late to an interesting thread....

Thought doesn't really 'happen' in a language, as such, with a grammar... if it did, it would imply that thought could not exist without a language first being established. Consider it this way - which came first - thought or language? you can think aboput, say, a tree, without knowing that it's called a 'tree'.

The bilingialism stuff, there are two types of bilngualism, compound bilingualism and co-ordinate bilingualism. These relate to whether the individual in question has a different semantic system for each language, or whether he has a shared semantic system.

Heavy stuff. I have a headache now. I think...

2:41 pm on Oct 9, 2007 (gmt 0)

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[...] if it did, it would imply that thought could not exist without a language first being established.

It can of course. But then learned vocabulary in turn shapes thought.

Consider it this way - which came first - thought or language? you can think aboput, say, a tree, without knowing that it's called a 'tree'.

Right. And you can think of a bush without knowing that it's called a 'bush'. But if you learn the word 'tree' and you never learn the word 'bush' then you'll probably call the bush 'tree' as well.

And then, when someone says 'tree' what are you going to think of? Something in the bush <-> tree spectrum, right?

ie. not the same thing as will be conceived by someone who knows the words for both 'bush' and 'tree'.

Not knowing both words means that both bushes and trees will be the same thing as far as you are concerned. Learned language provides learned distinctions.

1:36 pm on Oct 10, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Learned language provides learned distinctions.

Yep. A sophisticated language makes it possible to have more abstract thoughts, which would be much more difficult without a reasonable vocabulary.

1:45 pm on Oct 10, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Thanks to Dabrowski for a fun read!

I learned German years ago and I find I think it when I'm speaking it. If my brain doesn't know the word in German it naturally inserts the English word.

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