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Language and Development: You Say "Potato," I Sign, (Potato)

eden's picture

Language is a fundamental part of everyday life. In fact, the use of verbal and written communication is so ubiquitous it is often taken for granted. Language is a keystone of society, plastered all over billboards, blasted over the radio, and flashed across television screens to connect and inform the waiting eyes and ears of citizens from all cultures and backgrounds. Equally important as these public messages however, is an individual’s private use of language. Processing new information, worrying, dreaming; all these things are done by the use of the inner language of thoughts. It is impossible for most people to imagine a world devoid of language, because the act of imagining requires thinking, which requires language. Could a person really “think” if he or she did not possess language? And if a person could not “think,” how could he or she establish and reflect upon one of the most fundamental of human thought processes: the concept of self? For this reason, acquiring language can be considered the most important step of human development, as it provides an individual with the ability to form a concept of self. The simplest way to discuss this idea is to seek out examples of individuals who, for various reasons, do not fit into the societal “standard” of language, and discuss the effects of divergence from the linguistic norm.


A crucial aspect of language is the use of the senses of the body to communicate with others. As children, human beings listen to their parents, and others, speak to them, read to them, and converse with each other. By observing the use of language, a child eventually learns to use language as well. However, not all individuals in society have the ability to hear. Without hearing, how are the deaf able to learn language and develop a sense of self? Historically, deaf children were often immediately labeled as mentally retarded, or even treated as animals. Aristotle commented that without hearing, a person could not possibly be educated (2). The deaf were not able to learn the language of society, because at the time language was predominantly spoken and not written. In the 1500’s however, a Spanish monk named Pedro Ponce de Leon developed a method of educating deaf children using lip-reading (2). The insight into language caused an apparent “awakening” in the deaf child, who was then able to go on and function normally in life. Lip-reading however, was a very tedious and difficult task to accomplish, and not all deaf children were able to achieve proficiency. (6). The real breakthrough in deaf education was the invention of finger spelling, which eventually evolved into sign language and became the primary language of the deaf community. When deaf children were given access to a type of language, they were suddenly able to “awaken” and develop an identity in society. To a hearing person however, the method by which a deaf person “thinks” may still be unclear. When asked how he or she thinks, most hearing individuals will respond that thinking occurs in a stream of images accompanied by words or an “inner voice.” A person who is deaf has never actually heard words, and therefore must have some other method of thinking. When questioned, deaf individuals often report that they actually think in sign language, that is, instead of an “inner voice” deaf people have “inner hands” that spell out the words as they think them. One study even showed that a deaf person has trouble concentrating on something if he or she is forced to grip a wooden block, much as it is more difficult for a hearing person to think about one thing while talking about something else (6). It seems that in terms of development, it is not crucial in what form language is acquired; only that it is present. Deaf individuals are able to develop their minds perfectly normally provided they are able to use their available senses to communicate with others as well as think on their own.

Next to consider is the example of individuals who have neither hearing nor sight with which to communicate. The most famous example of a deaf-blind individual is the story of Helen Keller. Before the age of two Helen Keller developed a fever which took both her hearing and sight. She quickly became a violent child who behaved wildly, almost like an animal (1). It was not until she was about seven that the world opened up for Keller with the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. In her famous retelling, Keller describes the moment when she first understood what language was:

“We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten--a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.”

-Helen Keller, The Story of My Life


Helen Keller learned to read, write, and even speak, and wrote many books about her life and her reflections on her condition. She commented on her mental awakening, "When I learned the meaning of 'I' and 'me' and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me" (1), indicating that before she understood language, she felt no “consciousness,” or, no sense of self.

The story of Helen Keller is very inspiring and a striking example of how crucial language is to the development of consciousness, but her story is not altogether representative of a true blind-deaf case. Helen Keller was nearly two when she lost her senses of sight and hearing. She was already well into her development at that point, and her young, extremely plastic brain had already adsorbed some smattering of language which she was able to access later when the concept was reintroduced to her. What happens, then, in the case of individuals who are blind and deaf from birth? This condition, called congenital deafblindness, is extremely debilitating and sadly, individuals who are in this state are often unable to achieve communicative abilities of any kind. When no communication is established, the deafblind individual often behaves in a vegetative manner, occasionally lashes out violently, and evidences no sign of recognition of others (6). A lifetime of therapy making use of the sense of touch to develop the idea of an “outside world” may eventually provide a congenitally deafblind individual with some very basic communication, such as response to touch commands and an apparent awareness of others, but this path is extremely difficult and success is limited in most cases (6, 7). Still, through the sense of touch the most simplistic dashes of language are still able to be established. Deafblind individuals who have extensive communication training appear to be somewhat aware of themselves, that is, aware of themselves as separate from other people, so arguably they are able to think, but it is hard to tell exactly how they might go about this because of their restricted ability in communicating with the world. However, as stated before, congenitally deafblind individuals who do not go through the training described above do not appear to be aware of themselves. Without visual or auditory input, let alone a concept of language, it is hard to imagine how it would be possible for them to have thought processes. Clearly, one of the difficulties of attempting to determine what would happen in the case of an individual that had no form of language at all is that if the individual has no language then there is no communication and it is impossible to tell for sure what is going on inside the individual’s head. However, it is clear from the above examples that the less an individual is connected to society, that is, the less he or she is able to receive information from the world and communicate, the less language he or she is able to develop and consequently the harder and harder it appears to be for the individual to have a solid concept of “self.”

An interesting occurrence that provides yet another perspective on this issue is that of feral children. Feral children are children raised by animals or otherwise isolated. There are a number of instances of feral children on record, one of the most famous examples being the fascinating story of the wolf girls, Amala and Kamala. Amala and Kamala were two young girls, estimated ages 1 ½-3 and 5-8 respectively, who were found living with a pack of wolves in India (3,5). According to accounts given by the man who found and named them, Amala and Kamala had acted absolutely nothing like humans, walking on all fours, growling, waking up at night, even eating only raw meat (5). They used their senses like wolves, and inputs that are normally readily observed by humans, such as the sound of voices, went more or less unnoticed. Amala became ill and died within a short time, but Kamala lived until she was about 17, at which time she caught typhoid and died (5). During her “reform” Kamala was taught, reluctantly, to walk dress, and eat cooked food (3). She gained a very small vocabulary but little to no sense of grammar, using spoken language much in the same way the gorilla Koko uses sign language, repeating words and stringing only a few words together at a time (5,4).

Given this information, is it reasonable to say that Amala and Kamala could think? Did they have a sense of self? Perhaps the key to answering these questions lies in not being quite so stingy when defining what constitutes as language. Wolves communicate by barking and whining, as well as by submissive gestures such as putting their tails between their legs. These behaviors could also be called language. Amala and Kamala were raised by wolves, and thus the girls spoke the language of wolves. The girls’ behavior also indicated that they identified themselves as wolves. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that an individual’s sense of self is defined by the language of the society in which he or she developed, be it human or wolf, or any other animal. Does that mean that Amala and Kamala could not think? No. It appears that the girls simply thought in the language of wolves rather than that of humans. Does this mean that Amala and Kamala were not human? Biologically, certainly, they were Homo sapiens, but were they truly “human” in the metaphysical sense? Is the human brain truly so unfinished and malleable at birth that not even what is often called our “humanity” is present at that stage? Perhaps humans are not quite as different from animals as they often like to think they are. While humans may come with the capacity for greater complexity, whether or not that capacity is put to use perhaps remains up in the air.



1. Allott, Robin. “Helen Keller: Language and Consciousness.”

2. “Deaf Time-Line.”, 2007

3. “Kamala and Amala, the Wolf Girls of Midnapore”

4. Koko’s World. “Koko's First Interspecies Web Chat: Transcript.” The Gorilla Foundation, 2005.

5. McCrone, John. The Myth of Irrationality. 1993.

6. McCrone, John “The Tale of Helen Keller” 2006

7. Moller, Claes, MD.Deafblindness: living with sensory deprivation.” Elsevier B.V., 2003.

8. Schuur, Diane, and David Jackson. “Helen Keller.” TIME, 2003.