This question may not have ever occured to you, and it is one that is rarely asked. But in what language do people who are deaf think? The response is not that obvious…
In order to respond to this question, we must first make the distinction between people who were born deaf and people who have become deaf later in life. A person who becomes deaf later in life naturally will tend to think in the language they learned as a child, so the answer to this part of the question is simple.
However, in the case of people who have been deaf since birth, things become more complex:
“Unfortunately, it is not possible to enter into the mind of a person who is deaf and to compare their thoughts to those of a hearing person…but the majority of deaf people that I have met have explained that they think in images, based on their own sign language”, explains Yves Delaport, an anthropologist and the ex head of research in the French national centre for scientific research.
The expert has been working for years on the various types of sign language, because contrary to what we may believe, there is not just one type of sign language, but many different varieties all over the world.
“These languages differ according to the country, but also the region, much like dialects in spoken language”, the specialist explains.
In conclusion, it is highly likely that a deaf person born in Britain will think in the images used by British Sign Language (BSL). British Sign Language is made up of gestures that represent full words, sentences or letters of the alphabet, used to spell out names or words that don’t yet exist in the language.
Yves Delaporte explains that sign language can be more similar to Chinese than to European languages, as Chinese is a language that is more image-related. He concludes:
“Take for example a night out at the cinema with friends. By evoking the appropriate sign, the deaf person visualises the cinema in their mind, and is reminded of associated odours…. Is it really so different to what hearing people do?”.