Aaron Yang

High school Mathematics teacher,

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Has language limited our capacity of thought?

"Words can't describe..." is a very common saying. We may be hearing this all too often now that the world is changing like never before. But this also begs the question of, in what other mediums are we able to understand things? can these ideas be recorded on paper? video? etc. Just wondering what all you TEDsters thought of this.

  • Jan 30 2012: Its exactly the opposite, we cannot have thought without language. Think of a thought without language, it is impossible. Language is the only capacity we have for thought and is therefore not limiting thought but producing it.
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      Jan 30 2012: When a child has yet to learn her mother tongue, is she incapable of learning from the world around her?

      Is this child unable to understand concepts like hot and cold, bright and dark?

      Don't think so. So I wouldn't go as far as saying that it's impossible.

      There also other ways: musicians don't think in language terms when improvising. Painters usually don't go with their art in terms of "let's get a house over here... Yeah... A goat over there... ", they just go with the image, and are creating without language...
      • Jan 31 2012: The child: She makes correlations but she does not have thought until she has language. Think of it this way... she will not have any recollection of those memories without a language to recall those memories. Furthermore any outside observer must make an observation of her to determine if she understands concepts. This observation requires language.
        The musician: You are correct, action does not require language, however, action also does not require thought. The musician acts without thinking. It is only after the case that she can describe the experience (by the use of language of course). Or an outside observer as in the child's scenario.
        Thought requires language.
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          Jan 31 2012: After some reflection on your words, I think you might be right about the language-thinking and that maybe we were both wrong about the musician.

          I'm a guitarrist and I was doing some improvisation exercises yesterday, as I went through it, I've noticed for the first time that it wasn't an autonomous process. I was, indeed, thinking in the pitches and notes. The fact is that I was choosing notes to express emotions, there was a language, musical language. So, even with art, I am now convinced that language is intrinsically tangled in language, just a different one. Thank you for bringing me to this conclusion, your idea just changed my way of seeing the world
        • Feb 3 2012: Babies can remember before they can talk. Babies can understand without having yet acquired the ability to talk. I am sure that they use in their minds the language that they understand.
          Autistics have a tendency to think in pictures like Temple Grandin.
          Kinesthetic learners, understand things through movement. My daughter is one of them. She understand space and math in a fabulous way, I believe, because she is a gifted contortionist!
          Why should language be the only way to think and understand concepts?
          Also What about pictures? I am an artist and I think and understand concepts better with pictures.
      • Jan 31 2012: But thank you, I appreciate your response. Also, I love the idea you brought up of improvisation. It is amazing what the human body can do without our direction. The Stefon Harris TED video is a great example of that.
      • Feb 3 2012: Thank you for your comment Manue. I also think in terms of pictures. But to this we must ask the question: a picture of what? a rose? a tree? In order to discern what is in the picture, (or the concept of a picture) we need language. I am also one of those people that has to be constantly moving to learn. I am a graduate student in philosophy and I still find myself figdeting in my chair and needing physical exercise to think properly. But this is only a means to an end. When acquiring knowledge language is our only means at communication. Even in a behavorist conditional response, we recognize what the trigger is only though language. I understand your hesitation. It may seem like we acquire knowledge without the use of language. However, if you carefully examine each situation, I think you will find, as I did, that thought requires language.
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    Jan 30 2012: Although I agree with various comments saying that there are other major blockages in human thinking above language (or expression as you had in your comment below), there's a lack of structured non-verbal communication for the majority of people.

    Think about corporate (or even school/college) presentations. We often are met with huge walls of text that could easily be switched for some images or diagrams.

    The problem with images and diagrams is that they're time-consuming for most people. In our educational system, we are often presented with them but we're never taught how to build/design them. This is where data design comes handy.

    See this talk for something very educational about that:


    The bottomline is: Although language is not a limiting factor per se, the introduction of data design and image-related expression in the educational system is a must if we want to jump forward in our understanding of conceptual analysis and deep collaboration. Today we already have the tools for this trade, let's put this technology for use and expand it, improving the toolset for data designers and the general public.
    • Feb 3 2012: I totally agree with your comment Carlos!
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    Jan 30 2012: Well this is something i experienced with a little :o) (im only 18 yrs so dont expect too much experience).

    From what i see its natural for most people to think in words which are usually used to communicate with others...
    when i got that idea i naturally started to question if its the most effective way.
    What i tried is the following:
    I learned to stop thinking in words and as Jim Moonan said above started to think in images and feelings! Youd be surprised what emotions/feelings (hard to find an accurate word for it, feelings hits it better though) you can use to build your own expressions and by how detailed they are ;o).

    Today im using a combination of words, pictures and feelings whatever seems the best approach to a given topic or depending on what i want to reach with my current thoughts.

    The step im starting with now is to build something like my "personal mindlanguage" trying to find a combination of feelings and expressions / pictures to really capture the "essence" of "things" -this is a hard one i wont go into any details but its build heavily on logic, a few logic blocks out of which then more detailed expressions are built (and they shouldnt make the thoughtprocess timeconsuming).

    However what i figured out from this is quite obvious:
    1.: Thinking in Words: Way more effective when you have to express your thoughts to smn else, however bad for personal understanding as they just never get it perfectly.

    2. Thinking in Pictures and Feelings: Way more effective for personal understanding, however it can be hard from time to time to express those to someone else (figured that out after my first few exams at school ... when teachers told me my practical use of tools (maths chemistry physics) was quite awesum however once i had to explain smth they called it a mess :P)
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    Jan 31 2012: Language is a hacksaw dealt on the ocean of experience.

    If it enlightens, it also enshrouds. If it clarifies, it also obscures. It is a tool of oppression as much as it is an agent of liberation. It is a loom and the bluntest pair of shears. If we have a heavily dichotomous language, we are more likely to fall prey to dichotomous thinking. Language is the beam from whatever brand of socio-historic flashlight we happen to possess, and many of those could stand an overhaul.

    Language sends currents of meaning that heavily influence our interpretation of experience. Blindfolded, we will react differently to the smell of a block of cheese depending on whether someone calls it gourmet cheese or an old pair of socks.

    Even so, language can never be the thing itself. The best you can do with language is keep asking for definitions. For example, what do you mean by "language"? Thomas Sebeok observes, "Any form of energy propagation can be utilized for communication. Therefore, visual and auditory signaling do not exhaustively characterize the devices at the disposal of living things, for these include tactile, thermal, and electric physical patterns as well" ("On Chemical Signs"). More poetically, Rachel Carson, speaks of phosphorescent plankton as "lights that flash and fade away, lights that come and go for reasons meaningless to man, lights that have been doing this very thing over the eons of time in which there were no men to stir in vague disquiet."

    Moreover, what do you mean by "thought"? Are insights gained through language the most valuable of all insights? In contrast to any traditional Anglo-European/Judeo-Christian anthropic hegemony, "the more abstractionist and less intellectually vain Indian sees human intelligence as rising out of the very nature of being, which is of necessity intelligent in and of itself, as an attribute of being" (Paula Gunn Allen).

    In the words of Lao Tzu, "Nature is not human-hearted. The sage is not human-hearted."
  • Jan 30 2012: What an intriguing question!
    As a bilingual, I've been discovering some differences in nuance between Korean and English.
    Since Korean is my mother tongue, I am more familiar with Korean than English.
    So when I try to write something in English,
    I from time to time have a bit trouble with choosing "proper" and "touching" words.
    Whereas, when I use Korean I can use proper words and touching words—even unconsciously.
    Not only that,
    I feel sad when I cannot feel the same pleasure in this word: quiet, while I can feel joy in this word: 고즈넉한(Korean).
    “quiet” implies just tranquil, calm, and placid, but 고즈넉한 means more than its meaning to Korean I think. When I use this word, I can picture some grandma’s peaceful smile, quiet atmosphere in country, bean-paste smell—in this case I can imagine that I smell it, and a picture of a cow that grazes.
    So, if I want to translate this “고즈넉한” word to English, I cannot conceal my bitterness.
    This word is too much meaningful to translate just “quiet” or “tranquil”.
    If I were an American or the English, I wouldn’t be able to picture and feel those awesome images and the feelings that I have when I use “quiet”.
    (The reason why I feel like this is just because I’m a Korean.
    Every bilingual or trilingual can feel the same feelings I have.)
    I think this answer is slightly irrelevant to Aaron’s question, but the thing is…
    Language can limit our capacity of thought if we believe that all of the words and expressions we use everyday are “enough” or “perfect”.
    However, if we take advantage on this shortcoming of language, such as being a bilingual or trilingual and trying to find the various differences among the countries and cultures, we can rather expand our capacity of thought—that doesn’t mean that being a bilingual is the only answer for that.
    P.S. I wish I could learn more languages in the near future so that I can realize more values and drawbacks of Language,btw.
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      Feb 2 2012: I was also raised in a household that spoke Mandarin and Taiwanese. Your thoughts are definitely relatable to my upbringing. There are many words and phrases that can be described in Mandarin that may take a paragraph to even vaguely define in English. But i believe that as language evolves, the way in which we express ourselves will also evolve.
  • Jan 30 2012: ... no, narrowness of perceptions, prejudice, black and white thinking, fear of uncertainty, jumping to conclusions, associating only with things already familiar to us, etc ... have limitied our thought much more than language, I think ...
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    Jan 30 2012: I do not think the list of factors which contribute to limited human thinking includes language anywhere near the top. I think issues like apathy, prejudice, narcissism, pop culture, dumbing-down, ignorance and hedonism would be well above language on the list. Thanks Mr. Yang for a good question.
  • Feb 3 2012: Ok, i understand from your explanation that you are taking about talked language. Somebody who does not use any form of language (sound, sign language, facial language, writing, computer device) is really in a very bad condition. It means that he cannot move, that he cannot communicate in anyway. He is severely handicapped. Steven Hawkins can communicate with his devises and he was not always like the way he is now. I know a little girl who is severely handicapped from birth ( cannot move, is blind, cannot speak), still she uses sound and her face to make herself understand in a limited way. Since I have met her, I have asked myself, what could she be possibly thinking and imagining? I think that a way to avoid being limited by the use of one language could be: learning more languages, animations, drawings, music, body language, dance, any kind of other way of communicating really! Not everybody learns better through verbal phrases, some are kinesthetic, some are more visual...
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    Feb 2 2012: Yes... More importantly it has dramatically influenced the abillity of scientists to talk to one another.... Which is tragic. We're getting better though.... and I'm not sure a "universal language" is tenable in our lifetimes.
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    Feb 2 2012: Aaron Yang, uh...

    Hmmmmm. That' possible. Language, if you dwell on it. I suppose. Yes.

    No. It's not thought that's limited, it's potential. Try this on for size...

    When I do something extraordinarily good or creative, it may not be that I just found the right WORD. Besides creativity and capacity for doing good, let's take sheer resilience. That comes from something I don't have a word for, unless of course you count the word "resilience" itself.

    Wait! Revisit the question: Has LANGUAGE limited our capacity of thought? No. But now see it in a different way: Our capacity for thought is limited by our imaginations. Or is it? Maybe it is more accurate to say that our ABILITY for creative thought is not so much LIMITED as WEAK, and maybe this weakness comes from an addiction to the thoughts with language content. What if you asked me what I think about something and I hummed a tune, laughed, hugged you, and did a little dance that somehow conveyed a sense of well-being, acceptance and playfullness...

    Would that count? Might it even expand my capacity for thought in the sense that my message, although somewhat vague, might be understood by speakers of many diffferent languages. So at least my audience might be less limited, don't you think?

    Good question in many aspects Aaron, thank you.
  • Feb 2 2012: I really admire this question. Great thought.

    It seems that, in an impacting way, language has limited our capacity of thought. This is very troubling for the scientist who seeks to use exact representations of scientific "truths." Within the confines of objectivity, words will merely represent experiences. Words can never truly be the experience.
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    Feb 1 2012: Language is limited in the sense that the meaning of every word/sign/note/or whatever medium of expression is already defined. However, We can add more to the ambit of the definition and expand the scope of the same. For if we did that then we are expanding language. But then that is how Languages were born. But thought is neither limited nor defined. In fact it is thought that has shaped language and expression.

    I strongly believe, that Language has not limited our capacity for thought. It has created a platform for creating more thought, for when we look to express something that is already not defined, we are creating new definitions and are in the process creating language.

    Humans always had thoughts. The very presence of Brain gave us the capacity for thought. But Language was a later evolution. Our vocal cords had to be developed before we developed a capacity for language and then the rudiments of language we re born. Thoughts had already been in vogue. We began to crystallize them in the form of Language.
  • Feb 1 2012: we dont need language to create thoughts.
    our language came from our thoughts..
    our thoughts can travel trough time and be advance..
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    Feb 1 2012: Aaron ......Great question!! I agree that there is so much beyond words that "words can't describe". It is amazing that by 2012 so many different human languages have been developed, and yet some of the most important things are not express-able through words....... One quick example is music & images are another.
    Language does & has limit(ed) thought capacity; big time !! cheers.
  • Jan 31 2012: I'm currently learning a new language and though its similar to my first language it limits how I describe or express myself. However it does not stop me from making my point. The words that I may use in my native tongue have and evoke a special picture for me and that whom understands where I'm coming from. When put in a situation where one has to find the proper way to express ones self, anything is possible.

    I have found my self not only using hand gestures to explain something, but even making little skits or better yet playing a little game of charades in the middle of the street.

    I don't think language has limited our capacity of thought, I only think it has limited the way we express our thoughts.
  • Jan 31 2012: No. Language is not static. It needs to change with the needs of its users.

    Our only limitations are time, mental capacity, and willingness to work. Language is a tool. We need to learn enough to not restrict our ability to communicate our thoughts or allow it to be a barrier to learning the thought of others. The internet has done some amazing things in removing these barriers.
  • Jan 30 2012: already 2000 years ago the philosophers learned that " I think - therfore I exist". Today the scientist have proved ths to be true. With diferent kind of brain scan - PET and MRI - they can show that something is really going on in our precious little brains - little because mankind is almost succeeding in destroying our home planet. The question is rather - have we enough time to have enough of the people in the world informed of the issue - before everything is out of hands? But surely - if the question is like - eh - "you could chance ONE thing, like buying fair trade coffee or choosing a veg lunch, or sorting your carbage, or recycling some of it....." surely, surely SOME of the people would listen. And if SOME of the people listened, and told their neighbors, or friends or working mates ( and of course- if you´re already unimployed and living on the streets then you´re already recycling.... - PLEASE SEE THE IRONY!) anyway - I can´t see any serious obsticles on the path... Wll, maybe those world wide congloremates of companies giving US the things we want - or do we? Wiht what cost? Remember - there is nothing that is called "free lunch" in the world.
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    Jan 30 2012: It limits your thinking only when you become aware of it, in times of voicing your views, opinions, and even feelings, like your TED question. One language is one resource for thought. Two very different languages become multiplied resources for all, so much so that I continue drawing from them till this day.
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    Jan 30 2012: Good question! In my opinion then answer is yes; language limits, channels, filters, our thoughts and expressions, as well as being a medium for growth, cultural transmission, developing critical thinking.
    As Seth Powell noted above, we have a language-reinforced cultural bias to see things in terms of duality; pos-neg, good-bad, body-mind, subject-predicate. (Don't you think that limits our reasoning, besides just limiting our expression?)
    In essence, human life is about experiencing limitation, and potentially going beyond the limits of limitation; to connect and be connected, to live and die, to change our levels of awareness at will or as needed...We need structures to live and yet at the same time they become prisons; they keep us safe from the howling chaos/ natural wonders. So it is with language; we are genetically programmed to learn/ communicate linguistically, and we create beautiful structures with words, and in learning to express our thoughts, feelings, impressions we may create new words, ideas, points of view.
    A recommendation and a couple experiments:
    For an amazing exploration of language as a component of consciousness, see "The Evolution of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" by Julian Jaynes (and its a 5 point intellectual-status upgrade at the local coffee shop, too, when you thwack that thing down on the counter!).

    Try not asking questions for a day; take what a person says as the law/the truth.

    Say "I see" rather than "I think" and see how the world seems.
  • Jan 30 2012: If words suddenly became numbers would we be limited to integers only? Would we have fractions to express the nuances of that word? Perhaps poems would have repeating sequences of numbers with the more complex poems having more numbers between the repeating numbers.
    I suspect that if words do limit or thought processess in language then numbers and equations limit us in our thought processess in mathmatical expression.
    I propose that as our languages or number systems have become more complex our capacity for expressing complex ideas have increased rather dramaticaly.
    Computers can now express images to our brains in a sequence of 0's and 1's(digital imaging) which can be very complex. An example would be a 3D movie which can now express ideas to us in three demensions but also time, so 4D. Current movies in 3D with sound would be a very long binary code and very boring to normal humans, but translated into a form we can visualise could be very informative and entertaining.
    So the answer is YES. Words limit the communication of ideas.
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    Jan 30 2012: Interesting question.
    I just read Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" science-fiction short story and I think it proposes a very interesting answer to your question.
    and see also this:
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    Jan 30 2012: I have mixed veiws on this I used to say that language was a stone knife to imply it was a primitive tool, then I learned that stone knives could be made with an edge 1 molecule thick which was better than todays knives and then I desided it was still a good saying. I think that there are words missing in our language, "one who has experinced a horror and has not died or even been broken of mind or spirit due to their own character or efforts" does not work as a definition to survivor of sexual assault as a child, I think that language and the cognitive process of grouping has been shown to be the basis for how we organize our thoughts but on the edge of non language we have conman experiences that defy words, je ne sa qua's and geese on your graves or the strange silent moments or the dream that wakes you up be fore the phone rings with bad news or the butterfly in your stomach all these things some with words some with out that we share we still think, are they the same for all of us? define quality? define eerie ?define god ?define love ?define happiness? define the experience of spotting in a crowd a face you know ,explain how it works? What about walking is are there words for all the actions involved in taking a step? do you even know what goes into walking? what about language at all can you using words explain how you learned it? each step? if you cant remember doing it how do you recall how to use it? I think that the realm of thought is wider than the words we now have, but that it will someday be fully labeled if we live long enough as a species with the same language.
  • Jan 30 2012: Aaron,

    I do not know if it limits our capacity to think necessarily, but our language definitely shapes the way we think just as our culture does. This is true from the most mundane aspects of categorization, to the way we contemplate philosophical dilemmas.

    For example, in another thread we are discussing Descartes' assertion - I think therefore I am. He assumes that because he is doubting, he must exist, because if there is something being dine there is something doing it. I argue this is simply grammatical prejudice - he assumes an action requires an agent because of the subject/predicate structure to the Western languages. Some indigenous languages do not have this structure, and thus they would a. probably not engage in the same philosophical questions and b. would not assume an acton necessarily requires an agent.

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    Jan 30 2012: guess i probably worded my question poorly lol. expression of thoughts and ideas might be a better way to put it
  • Jan 30 2012: The question alone makes me only want to communicate using body language for a month and have things study my brain while I do so.

    I don't think it limits our capacity for thought, just our capacity for expression.

    I think we get caught up in having to identify something. Identify anything. Is that a threat? Is it good? Can I eat it? Where is it? What are that thing's qualities? How can I describe this to someone?

    I feel like our use of language is to express both, but if we stop using it, we might come up with more creative ways to get our points across to one another.
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    Jan 30 2012: I don't think my thoughts in words, I think them in images.