Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Language of Thought.

We were driving in the van a few days ago and I looked in my rear view mirror to see Seth staring out the window, seemingly day dreaming.  I couldn't help but wonder what he was thinking about.  But then it struck me:  how does he think?  What language can he possibly think in?  He is fast losing the languages of both his birth and circumstances, and has not yet gained a new language with which to form complete sentences or thoughts.  When they arrived in Canada, their language was already a mix of two incomplete languages and he and Lizzie now speak to each other mostly in short English phrases or words.  So what language does he think in?  How does he process thought?  Can he process thought without language?  How can the brain of even such an intelligent boy work without language to fill up the mind and enable thought?

I really don't know the answer to these questions, but they make me unbearably sad for him.  For them.


  1. I've read a little bit about this! Apparently your observation is exactly right - for a period, kids who need to transition between languages have a period where they aren't able to think in either language - it sounds absolutely terrifying! This is obviously one huge difference between transnationally adopted kids and immigrant kids - immigrant kids keep their first language. This sounds like such a hard thing to go through - you are going to need a lot of wisdom to help your kids through it. If you find any good resources about this please do blog them!!!

  2. Don't know if this will be a comfort to you, but here goes: developmentally, language is only a way to EXPRESS thought--we don't actually think in a language, but our language puts words to our thoughts (often quite inaccurately, even for those of us lucky enough to speak in our 'mother' tongue). So, Seth's thought life is every bit as deep and rich as yours or mine, or Matthew's. He just can't express it yet. That's coming quite quickly too! For what it's worth....

  3. A further response to your blog and Claudia's comment: It's true that Seth can't "think" easily in any language right now, in the same way that a little baby doesn't have the brain structure to "think" in English, even if that will be its first language. The baby, and Seth and Lizzie, are still thinking all the time, even though they can't express their thoughts to themselves or you in a language. The lack of language can be very frustrating, as humans are relational, and children are dependent on their caregivers to understand them even without language! Eventually the language will come, and then you will find out what some of the deep thoughts are and have been! Look out! lol

  4. Great post Ruth. I think that even immigrant children lose some of their language. I have friends who are bilingual and said it was a real shift when they started to think in their second language instead of their first. That must be so odd.

  5. It's so hard to see their languages leave. And to see them struggle. I think P was pretty much language-less in Addis already, playing in silly noises and making the other kids laugh (and the adults told us he was silent (I wish some days!) but knew everything that was going on). And now, we know exactly what he's thinking- all.the.time. He thinks out loud and even though I love that he's now got language, it drives me nuts!
    It sounds like your little ones are learning so quickly. But it still hurts, doesn't it?