Name a thing that you do every day, every hour and at every moment. You do it when you are sad and when you are happy and even when you are bored. You are so good at it at you can do it without even realizing it. Even when you are sleeping, you do it in the wildest and most imaginative ways possible. This amazing ability of your brain is what we know as thinking. It’s what goes on in our head that makes us feel like, us. It gives us a sense of existence. It’s what makes us conscious. The way we think defines our lives and helps us paint a picture of ourselves in our head.
Thinking isn’t just voices or sounds in your head. At times, it can be so fast and unconscious that we may go on for hours thinking without ever hearing ourselves. Generally, we all tend to think in the language that is most dominant in our social lives. For most people, this happens to be there mother tongue. It usually happens to be heard in a voice that faintly resembles your own, or sometimes, we even choose to mimic others to help us think, like listening to a song in your head.
It all seems fine until you think about the people who are hearing impaired. In which language do the deaf people think?
Scientists consider deafness to be much more serious than blindness. It is because we need some language or channel to drive our thoughts and actions. Someone with no language training in childhood is likely to grow up to be mentally impaired as well, even though their brain has no genetic defect. All of us need some kind of inner language to make sense of things and our mental states. Otherwise, things like our feelings and impulses will continue to be too abstract to be deciphered and expressed to others, and more importantly, to ourselves.
According to various researches, the thinking process varies in every deaf person, according to the extent of their disability and training they have access to. It is commonly accepted that humans can’t think without some form of language. But if we look at history, humans came in long before the evolution of languages. The first language to be born was also a universal one: the sign language. Ancient people communicated through signs, and before communicating through signs, they would have needed to think the symbols and signs in their heads. Later sounds evolved, and from then on, we perfected these sounds to create languages.
The widely accepted explanation is that the deaf people think in sign language, assuming they have learned it in childhood. The people who are born deaf but have some vocal training can sometimes think in the language they have learned. But primarily, they think in the sign language that they have learned. We all hear some kind of inner voice when we think about something. Similar to that, deaf people feel themselves expressing their sign movements in their heads when they think. Whereas we hear the sounds in our heads, they would see, or sometimes like us, feel the signs. It is easy to pick up sign language, and people with enough practice in it can easily communicate with it just like the normal speakers do with languages. Research has found out that the brain of those who use sign language is set up differently from those who speak oral languages.
Overall, once a person, deaf or not, learns enough of any form of a language to be able to express their thoughts to themselves in a precise manner, then no matter the language, they can accurately do so by combining visuals, sounds, and feelings.
The most common of human sign languages is the American Sign Language (ASL). There are a lot of debates going on over this subject – many proposing to teach the deaf only spoken languages, accompanied by lip-reading. But it is known that the deaf people who know only spoken languages are far behind in comprehension than those who know sign language. Hence, a bilingual systeme is practised, where the hearing-impaired people learn a spoken language as well as the sign language.