Our thoughts control everything that we do. They can be our guardian angel or the devil’s advocate. Sometimes that critical little voice can become overbearing and annoying but the fact of the matter is that we need her to get through day to day life. Regardless of the relationship that you have with your inner voice, the one indisputable fact is that you hear her and live with her 24/7.
Generally speaking we all think in our own native language, so, if you are American you think in English, if you are French you think in French if you are Chinese you think in Chinese. This interpretation of the mind and its thoughts creates one question, and that is, if we think in the language that we hear in what language do deaf people hear in?
Previously hearing people
When trying to establish what any language any particular deaf person hears in it is firstly important to consider if they have ever been able to hear. For instance, some people are born without the ability to hear and therefore never experience the sound of spoken language.
On the other hand, there are deaf people who were born fully hearing and experience sudden deafness due to an infection or injury. The other possibility that is important to consider is that many people go deaf gradually, for instance, they may start by noticing slightly reduced hearing that then progresses into complete deafness.
Once we are aware what someone who is now deaf used to be hearing before we can begin to figure out what language they think in we must first consider how old they were when they became deaf. For instance, those who lost their hearing at a very young age, before we start to really remember things, are highly unlikely to remember what their native language sounds like.
On the other hand, a 70-year-old woman who looses her hearing after having an infection will be much more likely to remember the sound of her language and therefore still think in this language.
If an adult were to wake up deaf one morning for instance, after a coma that they were in as a result of injury that had in turn caused damage to the cochlea or 8th nerve he would not suddenly change the way in which he thinks or the language that his thoughts are in. This means that if one suddenly becomes deaf as an adult or older child, they will often still possess the ability to think in their mother tongue and their thoughts will still sound like their native language.
Methods of Communication
We will now look at those who were born deaf or became deaf at a very young age and have no memory of the pronunciation and sound of the English language or any other language. For these people it is important to consider how they communicate as this has a direct impact on the language that they think in.
A lot of deaf people in America choose to communicate via American Sign Language however, others sometimes choose to use alternative methods of communication such as lip reading.
There are over 300 sign languages in the World. Some of the most common forms of sign language include American Sign Language, Makaton, and British Sign Language. All of these well established sign languages use gestures and symbols to convey different meanings and communicate with other people.
For these people, who use sign language to communicate there is a lot of discourse around what language they think in. Generally speaking when one of the five senses (taste, touch, sound, sight, and smell) is damaged or does not exist the others will possess the ability to become stronger.
So, for a deaf person their sound is compromised but this may mean that their sight is stronger as they use this constantly. This strengthened sight can often make it much easier to picture concepts and thoughts as they are ingrained in the mind.
Therefore, many deaf people picture their thoughts in sign language rather than hear them as a hearing person would in their own language. Therefore, whereas a hearing person may think “I need the toilet” in American a deaf person relying on American Sign Language for communication is likely to visualise the signs that translate to “I need the toilet”.
When a deaf person is also blind it is obvious that the language that they think in is unlikely to be a sign language as they do not possess the ability to see sign language and therefore learn it. Most people who are deaf and blind communicate by using a combination of tactile sign and braille.
Tactile sign is its own language that relies on touch and is mostly used for conveying non-textual information whereas brail is communicated by raised bumps that resemble a natural language such as English. Therefore a lot of deaf blind people rely on a combination of the two in order to communicate.
Being deaf or blind or both does not affect the cognitive ability of the brain and therefore such people are still capable of having in-depth thoughts in their own language. So, the majority of deaf and blind people will think in tactile sign and braille and therefore this is the language that they think in.
Regardless of what our dominant language is, it is via this that we think and process thoughts, for deaf people this will predominantly be sign language. The question of what language do deaf people think in , although widely asked, has one simple answer, they think in their own dominant language, be this American Sign Language, braille or something else.
However, as previously discussed there are exceptions to this as not every deaf person has always been deaf and therefore some still possess the memory of the sound of their old native language such as American.
Therefore, they could use their previous language in their own internal monologue and then their thoughts would sound just the same as every other speaker of that language, in this situation they may also start to combine thinking in their old language with thinking in sign.