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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: June 2012

25 - The relationship between language and cognition


The relationship between language and cognition

Perhaps because we think in words most of the time, language and thought seem quite inseparable (Vygotsky, 1986). Can we think without words? Does the language we speak shape the way we think? Or is it the other way around: do our perception and cognition shape our language?

Can we think without language?

Infants and older children seem able to think about important aspects of the physical world without language. By age 3 or 4 months, preverbal infants act as if they think that each solid object occupies its own space and so one object cannot go through another one (Baillargeon, 1993). Five-month-olds can count without words. If they see a hand carrying two objects to the back of a screen and reappearing empty-handed, they seem to expect two more objects behind the screen than before this addition event (Wynn, 1992). When they watch “magic shows” – created for these experiments – that violate basic principles of physics or numbers, preverbal babies would seem surprised and stare at such physically implausible scenes longer than they would at physically plausible ones. Some older children do not have any language because they are profoundly deaf and have not yet been exposed to any sign language. Nonetheless, they invent their own home signs and gestures to express their thoughts and needs (e.g. describing someone shoveling snow; asking someone to help them open a jar; see Goldin-Meadow & Mylander, 1990).