How do people with little/no language skills process information/think?
November 23, 2005 9:25 AM   Subscribe

How does a deaf person, without reading or writing skills, process information? Years ago, I worked with a wonderful man, who was developmentally disabled, knew only a few rudimentary ASL signs, but was able to perform activities of daily living very well. What are your ideas about his thought processes?

Inspired by previous question: "Does a person's native language affect their cognitive skills and thinking patterns?"
posted by jsteward to Science & Nature (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
i think he'd have to think visually ... i don't see any other way he could do it
posted by pyramid termite at 9:28 AM on November 23, 2005

Covered somewhat by Cecil Adams here.
posted by TedW at 9:30 AM on November 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

Do you normally think your actions through in English when you're washing the dishes?

"I'm going to pick up this dish now, turn it to a diagonal angle, and hold it under the running water. The large particles have been removed, so now I will take the sponge and scrub away the remaining residue. A final rinse, and a visual check that the dish is clean. Seems okay; I will turn to the right, and place it in the drying rack..."

We use conscious thought and internal language a lot less in our daily lives than we'd like to think we do. I bet he copes with things pretty much how you do.
posted by chrismear at 9:31 AM on November 23, 2005

There's actually a good section on this in Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation, about a deaf man who lived in a village too poor for a sign-language teacher. (Page 255 if you want to sneak a peek on Amazon look-inside.)

It's a great book, I'd highly recommend it to anyone with a human brain. The author is autistic, and is an animal behavior specialist. She uses stories from her work to help interpret brain function and how people's higher brain functions are all based off of simpler parallels you can find in a bird or a puppy.
posted by jwadhams at 9:39 AM on November 23, 2005

Oops, turns out Temple was referencing this book that specifically deals with the question: A Man Without Words, by Susan Schaller.
posted by jwadhams at 9:46 AM on November 23, 2005

Native Deaf Signers have a noticable difference in where in their brain language processing occurs—there's more activity in the area that involves spatial reasoning and such.

I experience a subvocalization for everything I read or write, I'm aware that this isn't true for anyone.

With those two facts in mind, it occured to me to wonder if there's an equivalent to subvocalization with Sign, sort of a subarticulation. So I asked my aunt, who is Deaf. I don't have her response handy, but she said that she subvocalizes as I describe myself to do. However, with hearing aids, she has some hearing and she's not quite a native Signer because she is one of those unfortunate Deaf children who were sent to speech-only schools. Until my grandmother decided that this was wrong and took her out and into a school where they sign. So I don't think her response is completely authoritative with regard to the question given that perhaps the question doesn't fully apply to her.

Related to the brain function difference, there are also some practical cognitive difference that, Oliver Sacks at least, claims to have noticed with Native Signers as opposed to the hearing.

Linguistics, evolutionary psychology, and probably neurology will all assert that the essence of human language is innate and that being the case, Sign must necessarily be similar to spoken languages. With regard to linguistic analysis, it is (and this wasn't known until recently). EP would say that language is a functional unit determined by evolution that exists in a real brain structure and would then interpret, I'm guessing, the different brain activity I mention above in terms of the other ways in which the brain is somewhat plastic and can adapt when something is damaged. Neurology would probably say the same thing. So it seems to me that it's a long-shot to think that Sign is a fundamentally different way of using language and that this would be reflected in other cognitive tasks.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:46 AM on November 23, 2005

That didn't exactly answer your question because what you're really looking for, I think, is an answer to the question "how do people who have been denied the aquisition of language 'think'?" Linguists find this question very, very interesting and they've explored it whenever they've been able to. There's not been that many people completely denied language. Languagehat should be along any time now and give you more information.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:51 AM on November 23, 2005

It seems like a strange question to me, because I seldom think in words. I seem to think in a kind of symbolic shorthand that sometimes, but not always, approximates words and sentences. I often find it hard to translate my thoughts into writing.
posted by martinrebas at 10:12 AM on November 23, 2005

The question touches on a number of notions about the connection between language and cognition. It may be useful to look at each separately. First, there is the question of modality: visual versus auditory. This seems like it would neccesitiate a big difference to cognition, but as Ethereal Bligh points out, much of our current understanding of Linguistics, Psychology, and Neurobiology seem to support the idea that languages, regardless of appearance, are more alike than different.

Of course, then there are the unique linguistic features of ASL which, as Ethereal Bligh points out, do indeed have structural and functional neurostructural consequences. The specific differences tend to involve the differential recruitment of spatially-associated areas of cortex and a greater bilateral recruitment of function in native signers than in native speakers. The fact that in imaging studies, native signers show this different use of brain structures and fuction, while non-native signers do not, would tend to lend credence to the notion that thought processes could be significantly different between signers and speakers. The linguistic explanation for these neurological differences involve the unique position that space and spatial relationships play in morphological, syntactical, and even in discourse structures, as well as the sociolinguistics of sign and signers.

Neither of those, however, address the anecdote regarding the developmentally-disabled deaf person. This deals with pathological language development, where a person is isolated from a linguistically rich environment during critical and crucial periods of language acquisition/development. It seems difficult, of course, to separate out linguistic neglect from more general developmental disability. They go hand in hand, and someone who has pathological language development is unlikely to have "normal" cognition, anyway. Measuring such a difference, or quantifying the difference at all, seems like ti would be a difficult task.

In terms of people without proper language at all, I think it would be safe to say their inner monologue/though processes would be very different from yours or mine. I had a (prelingually deaf) teacher who was also an expert in communicating with people like this who happened to be deaf, people with so-called Minimal Language Skills. He described the process of interviewing such a person once. It seemed like a fantastically difficult process, since even the simplest abstract concepts (like time periods) needed to be explained, often through an elaborate process of pantomime. In retrospect, he was perhaps the perfect person to teach ASL to hearing people, since he could quite clearly communicate, if need be, with people who had no understanding of sign whatsoever.

More generally, I think the question may be impossible to answer except philosophically. So much of language is perfectly entangled with cognition. What would cognition without language resemble? Or language without meaning?
posted by Eldritch at 11:34 AM on November 23, 2005

Languagehat should be along any time now and give you more information.

Nah, this is way beyond the area I know anything about. (I was into ancient words and the dusty nineteenth-century German journals that discussed them, not people and their confusing psychologies.) But knowledgeable people seem to have shown up.

*sits back, awaits further enlightenment*
posted by languagehat at 11:53 AM on November 23, 2005

Analogy: I once heard a music teacher lamenting students' sight reading and music theory skills, saying "How can they expect to play an instrument properly?"
I noted that people were playing musical instruments skillfully long before musical notation was invented.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:22 PM on November 23, 2005

The process where the brain acquires language is absolutely fascinating, if for no other reason than there's few concrete answers. One of the most interesting facts to me is that there's a gigantic difference in development between a child that loses its hearing around birth and one that loses it in the first to third year of life. Even though hearing is lost before the child is speaking or necessarily even comprehending the brain has acquired neural pathways that impacts learning to communicate.

Oliver Sacks wrote some on the subject and while I have not read it I enjoyed his shorter works in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." The review on amazon might imply this isn't as pleasant a read. Supposedly he was inspired to write it by What the Mind Hears which gets much better reviews.
posted by phearlez at 12:25 PM on November 23, 2005

Analogy: I once heard a music teacher lamenting students' sight reading and music theory skills, saying "How can they expect to play an instrument properly?"
I noted that people were playing musical instruments skillfully long before musical notation was invented.

I think that's quite a dubious statement and analogy. Maybe I'm missing your point, though.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:52 PM on November 24, 2005

phearlez, that is a very good Sacks book. I highly recommend it.

Of note in the context of this thread, Sacks shows how deaf children that natively Sign, and do so during the period of language aquisition, are as competent linguistically as hearing children. This notably includes their competency with written languages, as well. In contrast, many or most deaf people who aquire language late have some competency problems with written languages.

He asserts that the reason for this is simple: there is a "magic" window in which language aquisition occurs and after that it is impaired to some degree. This is generally true, but the implications with regard to deaf children are great.

Because of Alexander Graham Bell's zealotry in favor of speech-only, no-Sign deaf education, North American schools for the deaf overwhelmingly stopped teaching Sign in favor of speech and lip-reading. Both are very difficult and those children thus taught missed the language aquisition window.

Prior to this time, Deaf education had existed only briefly: before the late-eighteenth century, European and North American deaf children were thought to be severely mentally deficient, received no schooling, and had no fully developed signing language1. Around 1760, Charles Michel De L'Eppe, a Frenchman, recognized that a Deaf community in Paris had a gestural language which he learned and utilized in establishing a school for the deaf. In 1815, an American, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, went to Europe and brought back Laurent Clerc, introducing Deaf education and Sign to North America2. But from 1870 and onward, Bell's influence grew and more American schools abandoned Sign and turned to oral-only pedagogy.

The period before Bell's influence is known as the "Golden Age" of Deaf education. As Sacks demonstrates with some examples, there were a good number of Deaf scholars who were extremely fluent and competent—eloquent—with written English3 during this period.

Bell's ideology of oral-only deaf education reigned supreme until, believe or not, the 1960s or so. Deaf people who were educated at oral-only schools during this period show a marked difficulty with written English. A big part of the impetus to throw out the oral-only ideology and replace it with Sign was the linguistic community's assertion that Sign and other signed languages are fully valid languages, equal to spoken languages in every important linguistic sense.

As I mention, on the advice of her physician, my grandmother sent my aunt away to a deaf school out of state that was an oral-only school. My aunt was extremely miserable and, as is the case with many deaf students who attended such schools, tells of beatings when caught using anything like Sign to communicate. Eventually my grandmother became aware of this abuse and asserted herself, bringing my aunt back to New Mexico and sending her to the School for the Deaf in Santa Fe, where my aunt fully aquired Sign.

My aunt is a very capable and accomplished woman—the first, I believe, deaf woman to earn a Master's Degree in business administration; New Mexico Disabled Person of the Year one year; very active in the Deaf community—but her written English is a bit clumsy.

Part of the nature of Sacks's book is that it's a diatribe against Bell's ideology and against what is surely a great crime against several generations of deaf children.

1. I believe this is contested. If I recall correctly—and I could be misremembering—Sacks casually asserts, but does not support, that the Deaf community L'Eppe found in Paris used a proto-Sign language and not a fully developed native language because the social environment did not allow the full generational transfer of a proto-language such that the fully developed language is realized.

2. This is why American Sign, ASL, is very similar to French Sign...enough so that the two are mutually intelligable to each other while British Sign is quite different from ASL.

3. It should be noted that the conventional transliteration of English to Sign results in "Signed English", distinct from American Sign Language, and no more valid as a language than would be a convention for the transliteration of spoken English to spoken French.

posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:29 AM on November 25, 2005 [4 favorites]

I think that's quite a dubious statement and analogy. Maybe I'm missing your point, though.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:52 PM PST on November 24 [!]

My point was that musical notation, like speech and writing, is a level of abstraction away from the original experience. There's a paradox here: If you assume someone needs to speak or write in order to process information, how does one speak or write the information in the first place? Speaking or writing helps communicate experience to someone else, but information can be processed directly by experience, and usually the understanding is more thorough. For example, try teaching a child the concept of "hot" through words alone.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:05 PM on November 25, 2005

My point was that musical notation, like speech and writing, is a level of abstraction away from the original experience.

I see. It's not a good analogy though. Lots of music can be considered to be in its most pure form on the page, and performances are interpretations of what's written. It's incorrect to assume that the point of musical notation is to transcribe some kind of original performance, just as writing is more than simply transcribed speech. And musical notation came about fairly early, before there were quality instruments that lent themselves to virtuoso performances.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:59 PM on November 25, 2005

The purest form of the number ten might be considered to exist as an idea, but that is a level of abstraction or three away from the original experience, which was likely playing with your fingers. We're not talking about purity, but how illiterate deaf people can process information. The number ten can be easily understood without words, math teachers, pencil and paper, or the study of Aristotle. And if I wanted to convey the notion of music to an extra-terrestrial, I wouldn't hand him a score.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:27 PM on November 25, 2005

w-gp, I don't disagee with the idea you're proposing with regard to communicating with the deaf, I just don't think that your quip to your music teacher was a good analogy, or particularly accurate. Sight reading and music theory skills are important to playing an instrument properly, and there wasn't much complex music being played before musical notation. There just isn't a good comparison to be made there.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:15 AM on November 26, 2005

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