Asked by: Nick, by email
This is a tough one. Some scientists claim that all thinking needs words and grammar, and is really talking to yourself. Others argue for a special ‘language of thought’ that uses abstract mental representations. Others say that only some kinds of thinking uses words.
The words we use affect our thoughts – for example, sexist language or abuse. More surprisingly, the first language we learn affects the way we think. For instance, when solving simple arithmetic problems, Chinese speakers use a different part of the brain from native English speakers. Many animals can obviously think: Betty the New Caledonian crow bent a wire into a hook to spear food while chimps piled up boxes to reach a suspended banana. And they don’t know any words at all.