How do Deaf people think?
Author: Matthew Fisher
I have come across the question a few times in the past and wondered about this subject myself: how do Deaf people think? Well, the answer to a question like this is never simple. Otherwise, the question probably wouldn't exist. It is actually quite complicated, but I think I can shed some light on the matter. The short answer: it depends.
How a person thinks really depends on many factors contributing to the makeup of that person person. Is that not also the case with hearing people? Do you think that your thoughts or even modes of thinking match those of every other hearing person or even any other hearing person? I doubt that's the case and that idea does not apply to Deaf people, either.
As a person studying multiple languages, I know that I think at different times in different languages, depending on the needs of each situation. This can be true for Deaf people, too, if they know more than one language. As a general, but far from perfectly accepted, rule is that Deaf people should learn signed language before anything else because it is the language most accessible to them. It is generally known by people involved with Deaf studies of the Deaf population that Deaf people trained orally without exposure to a signed language know maybe about 50 words by the age of 5, whereas a hearing person in the same boat would know thousands of words (Moore and Levitan 79). Learning a language within what linguists and psychologists call The Critical Period is extremely important because it gives children the necessary foundation to use and continue to develop language. A child who does not learn a primary language (or two or three) during this critical window of opportunity will have a lot of problem later on developing fluency in any language, often showing difficulty in production of function words like of and the that have little to no real-word connection.
That being said, a Deaf person who is trained with a signed language (let's take American Sign Language (ASL) as an example) and no other language may think in signed language. It might be hard to conceptualize a person thinking in signs, but put it into this context: what did cave dwellers do many years ago before they had develop language as complex as those that exist today? What were their thoughts like? This is of course not to compare Deaf people to cavemen, but rather to illustrate that there is a difference in thinking from person to person that can only be fully understood by the person who thinks in that way. What is very important to note is that, as long as it is done during The Critical Period, "[D]eaf children acquire sign language much in the same way that hearing children acquire a spoken language, going through the same linguistic stages including the babbling stage" (Fromkin et al 20). What this really tells us is that Deaf children are no different than hearing children in terms of being able to acquire a primary language, given the important condition that that there is sufficient exposure to it during The Critical Period. Similarly, they will develop the same ability as hearing children to think and comprehend, but only through a different modality - signed language.
As a generalization, let us say that hearing people think in the sounds (phonemes) that make up the words of their spoken languages and Deaf people think in the movements (visemes) that make up their signed languages. The same exact thoughts can be encountered and, well, thought in both, but the modalities will be different. Think of it this way: because both spoken languages and signed languages are acquired in much the same ways, mirroring the same stages, the difference between thinking in ASL and thinking in English is comparable or akin to the difference between thinking in English and thinking in Bengali – just a different way to conceptualize the same idea.
Of course, as I have said, it is not this simple. It gets a little murkier when we look at Deaf people (or Hard of Hearing people) who have acquired a sign language as a primary language and a spoken language as a secondary (or tertiary, quaternary, etc.) language. Much like my situation with languages, and not very surprisingly, those who have the ability to think in different languages as a function of knowing different languages will think in different languages. It seems so sensible, but I think that that fact is often overlooked. Just as I can switch back and forth between thinking in English, Spanish, German, or another language, a Deaf person knowing ASL and English, for example, can switch back and forth between thinking in ASL and English. A simple idea, yet worth mentioning.
As mentioned, it also depends on the individual. No one person will think in exactly the same way as any other person; it is just not possible and not recommended if one is looking for a world full of different, unique, and stimulating experiences and world-views.
Moore, Matthew S., and Linda Levitan. For Hearing People Only. 3rd. Rochester: MSM Productions, Ltd., 2011. p. 79. Print.
Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams. An Introduction to Language. 9th. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011. p. 20. Print.
*all blue terms are defined in the "Linguistics Glossary" section of this site.