By Phoebe Lim
“Ildefonso was in love. He was so in love [with symbols and words],” Susan Schaller, an interpreter fluent in ASL, describes a man utterly without language, having been born deaf, comprehending the link between objects and their names for the first time. Schaller walked into her first class to bring sign language to the deaf and this was where she met Ildefonso, a Mayan man without any capability to converse. After a lifetime of being deprived of interaction and relationship with people who could speak and teach him language, Ildefonso had no language whatsoever, he could only mimic the same introductions Schaller gave to him without comprehension of what they actually meant, how we use language to connect with the universe.
We live in a world in which language is a necessity, so much so that we can’t even imagine life without it. And yet, there are plenty of people who had to survive without language—brain surgery patients, men and women like Ildefonso, individuals who have lost all capability to understand language.
What is a sentence without even a fragment of letters to present forth an idea? What is a thought without the words or symbols to represent it?
Truly, it is hard to wrap your head around how salient language and our ability to learn connections between symbols and their names consumes our thinking; we make sense of the world because of this capability. I, myself, speak three languages other than English and as much as it is a chaotic, rambling chatter in my head, I could not imagine the little voice in my head switching languages and understanding the world every second of my life. Furthermore, I believe we cannot fully comprehend a life without language until it is ripped from us, it is a different way of thinking virtually unimaginable, and it also hinders our ability to connect with the world like others. Imagine waking up one day without the tiny voice in your head that tells you instantly what you have to do today, how that absolutely infernal alarm clock is going off again, whether you have to attend a class immediately or you can surrender a few minutes snuggling in bed. You can’t, right?
What is a mind without language?
For Jill Bolte Taylor, she went through that exact, unimaginable reality. Language was ripped away from her after a brain surgery to treat her stroke. She woke up in a hospital bed, warm afternoon light peeking through the blinds of the windows, the clinical smell of a hospital stinging her nose, her mother sitting on a chair next to her, completely without the ability to describe any of that. She had lost all language. And what did that leave her with? Silence. Peace. Emotion. An intense connection to the world because suddenly, she had no other way to understand it apart from how it felt when the sun warmed her skin, when the smells infiltrated her nose, when her mother touched her arm. All she knew was silence, peace, and emotion, a headspace utterly without language. Eventually, she relearned language and how to integrate it back into her thoughts, but for thought she traded her peace.
What is a mind without language? Tranquility. Feelings. Quietude. Connection.
Ann Senghas, psychologist studying a phenomenon of a birth of sign language in Nicaragua, said, “Thinking about thinking. Understanding how other people understand. That’s something that having language makes you better at,” language is fundamental to our interactions with each other and the world, but perhaps not God—He transcends the need for speech. Even if people can live perfectly content lives without language in connection to life in an entirely new way, the presence of language is simply far too important.
We need language to empathise, to make sense of the universe, to give meaning to shapes, to fully express love in words combined with actions, to tell us that we are connecting to people. It is the reassurance that we are heard, that we have ideas to share, that others understand us. It is the ability to liberate the thoughts crammed into our heads. Jad Abumrad asked, “What is thought without language?” Nothing. Thought is only a skeleton with organs of emotion and feeling but without the flesh and muscle of language to pull it together.
“Words: Radiolab.” WNYC Studios, 9 Aug. 2010, https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/episodes/91725-words.