Life without words

Words Season 8, Episode 2 by Radiolab

If you somehow skipped Episode Words on Radiolab, do find time in your busy schedule to listen to this interesting discussion. It is an nice synthesis of life experiences of different people brought together to discuss what words mean and what it is to live without words. Although the creators seem to inform listeners (they present accurate information in a descriptive way), the podcast is not only informative, but enjoyable as well. It is difficult to tell what attracts you most in this episode:  how the stories are presented, the stories themselves, speakers’ ideas regarding the meaning of language, or the combination of all three. Anyway, the conversation is not tied to any language theories and is easy to follow and understand.

The conversation starts with an incredible story of Susan Schaller who, like many of us, never thought of how it feels to be born deaf and live in a world without words, until she met a 27-year-old man and started to teach him the first words in his life. This moving story, which she later extended to a book, describes her understanding of how life changes once we realize that “everything has a name”. But let us leave this story on its own. Its goal here to pose a question, “What is it that happens in human beings when we get symbols and we start trading symbols?” and the answer given is “thinking”. This idea sets the tone to the rest of the discussion.

Words are important for thinking, namely, for sharing thinking. The blog speakers report on how they arrived at understanding that. Neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor describess her perceptions of life without language, during recovering period after a stroke, as “peace”, solely physical experience, not connected to memories. Not diminishing the role of language for communication, she argues that by using language we become devoid of experiencing it. This is more clear on the example of Ann Senghasa, a  professor who spent 30 years understanding the language of 50 deaf children, who were not taught sign language. Put together, the children started creating a language from their own experience and eventually demonstrated more intelligence than older learners who were instructed in signs. Her central claim is that we build language to live in a community. James Shapiro, the Shakespeare Scholar, makes interesting contribution to the discussion. He enters the conversation explaining that Shakespeare created words for unnamed images and emotions that people had already experienced. He combined words different in meaning to label notions, which were easily understood by spectators and readers. Overall, the conversation explains that words are tools used to convey the concepts, feeling and actions we already experience.  Once we grasp them, we start connecting notions, then reflect on our understanding, exchange them within our communities; and this what thinking is.

The idea of the role of language for communication and thinking, raised in the podcast, is not new. However, fueled by its examples of people using gestures, mimes and whole bodies to share experiences, for a second I imagined us, instead of using words or signs, acting out notions to communicate. What would our life be like? Would we be different? More creative? Less thoughtful may be? Of course, we can turn to the dawn of human evolution for the answer. Still… Use your imagination and share in comments on what you see.

P. S. The video is inspired by Words, radiolab


5 thoughts on “Life without words

  1. Aigul, thank you for your interesting post! You have raised so many intriguing questions! I can’t possibly imagine my life without using a language as it is ingrained in every aspect of my life. But I would assume that without language, we would deeply experience any feelings, sensations or impressions.
    I don’t have any readily available knowledge in this field, but I’m wondering how this thinking process happens for language-less people, because when I think, I do it with language or in a certain language. Perhaps, they think visually? What do you think?


  2. I find it surprising how many people insist that the primary function of language is communication. When you write a journal, make an outline for your essay, jot down some ideas, or just hear an incessant stream of consciousness (which is by the way impossible to stop) – this is all language, but it has nothing to do with communication. In fact, human language is rubbish as a communicative tool, if you think of it: I think most conversations in my life ran into misunderstandings at some point (I hope it’s not just me ). To me, language is clearly a tool for thinking and organising ideas about the world we experience, and it is purely incidental that we’ve adopted it for communicative purposes.

    So, we might perfectly be able to communicate without words, as there would be very little to talk about. Without language, our brain would be about just as good as that of a chimpanzee, but, on the positive side, we’d all be ‘in peace’ with ourselves.


  3. Thank you Aigul for sharing an intersting post! It was interesting to listen to Susan Schaller’s story of the man without words. Sometimes i question myself of how important are words for understanding the World around us. For example, when i see animals, i think that they are able to recognise cats, dogs of various types withount words. That leads me to the thought of how essential are words for thinking. We should be able to deferentiate our learning skills of how to think and how to share our thoughts. To my mind, most people ignore skills of thinking in a language. We place too much attention to the importance of language itself but not to the ability to think.
    Don’t you think that an excessive attetion to words stunts our ability to learn how to think?


  4. It you wish to gain some knowledge in the field, @akalya77, then this podcast is an enjoyable way to understand why we use language and what words, things we take for granted, mean in our lives. It also presents some visions of how we might have communicated without language.
    Unlike you @chsherbakov, I see the communicative role of language, even “rubish”, as an asset, as one of the most productive ways to learn the world around us, which makes us so different from other species. I would agree with you that deprived of language, we would be more tranquil, less intelligent, which is ok if not to compete for civilization benefits. In your comment you suggest that applying thinking into written form has more to do with thinking than with information exchange; I believe that jotting down ideas in a journal is also communication. Talking to yourself via journal, reflecting on what you have experienced, coming back to reread what you have written earlier is information exchange too!
    @aigerimkazhigaliyeva, what do you mean by “language itself”? If it is structure that you mean then I agree that important to think over what we say rather than how, provided information is comprehensible. If you mean the word choice, then I think words can be powerful too.


  5. Excellent post, Aigul. There are a couple minor grammar or spelling mistakes (James Shapiro, the Shakespeare Scholar, makes __ interesting contribution to the discussion; describess) but the majority of your post is well organized and pleasant to read. You’ve also prompted an interesting discussion. I, for one, agree with @chsherbakov that language itself can be a hindrance to communication, especially in communicating complex ideas to people who don’t share common knowledge with you. Thankfully for me, it means better job security! Thanks for taking the time to respond thoughtfully to those comments. 5/5


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