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What Is the Connection between Language and Cognition?

By C.J. Wells
Updated May 23, 2024
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Language and cognition are closely connected, practically and conceptually, although there is considerable disagreement among experts about the precise nature of this connection. The debate among linguists and psychologists is much like the chicken-and-egg debate — they question whether the ability to think comes first or the ability to speak comes first. There are three main positions regarding the relationship between language and cognition: language develops largely independent of cognition, cognition influences both language and the pace of language development, and language precedes cognition and is the primary influence on thought development.

There is considered to be validity to all three theories concerning the nature of the connection between language and cognition. Considerable research and evidence exists to support each position. Much of the disagreement among child development experts, surrounds “when,” not “if.”

Language is the use of sounds, grammar and vocabulary according to a system of rules that is used to communicate knowledge and information. Although many non-human species have a communicative ability that might loosely be called language, only humans utilize a system of rules that incorporates grammar and vocabulary. The word "cognition" is often used synonymously with “thought” or “thinking,” but its general meaning is more complex. It refers to the process or act of obtaining knowledge through not only perceiving but through recognizing and judging. Cognition also includes such thinking processes as reasoning, remembering, categorizing, decision-making and problem-solving.

Linguistics is concerned with the scientific study of language in all its manifestations, and there are several branches of social sciences that focus on cognition. For example, cognitive anthropology studies the cultural differences in reasoning and perception. Cognitive science is the formal study of the mind, and the models and theories from this discipline were the basis for the originating theories of artificial intelligence.

The branch of psychology that studies mental processes such as memory and attention is called cognitive psychology. Within the realm of psychology, cognitive therapy is a behavior therapy based on the idea that the way a person cognitively perceives himself or herself in the world determines how he or she feels. Cognitive therapists believe that people can change their emotions by first changing their cognitive perceptions.

At its simplest, the connection between language and cognition for normal human adults, no matter their ethnicity or culture, is profound. Speech gives voice to thoughts. Although individual cognitive processes are internalized and therefore silent, language — whether spoken or written — allows for knowledge and information to be shared.

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Discussion Comments

By jessiwan — On Jun 26, 2019

I just thought of something:

I knew how to make double entendres long before I had heard of them (both as a word as well as a concept), or seen them anywhere in writing. It was a completely foreign thing to me, I did not know it either in my mother tongue or English. But I was still able to create double entendres. This gives evidence to the theory that people are able to think without language.

By jessiwan — On Jun 24, 2019

This is a highly fascinating topic.

I don't know the relationship between cognition and language, however I will simply bring up George Orwell. In his novel, "1984", he described how the totalitarian government would deny people certain words so that they could not think in a certain way. My memory is hazy but I think one instance of this is the government changing the word "bad" into "ungood", or something like that. Then people could not express their thoughts properly, nor convey complex concepts any longer.

By everetra — On Feb 13, 2012

@miriam98 - I think the challenge comes because we don’t really understand what cognition is. Is it the mind or the brain? What is thought?

These are the questions that plague researchers in the field of artificial intelligence, in their perpetual quest to create the first thinking computer.

Clearly a thinking computer wouldn’t necessarily need to have language, except as a means to communicate with the user. Right now we don’t have thinking computers yet, but we do have some pretty good simulations.

By miriam98 — On Feb 12, 2012

@NathanG - You raise a good point. I think that cognitive therapy reinforces the connection between words and speech, whether that speech is silent or verbalized. “Change your thoughts and change your world,” is the mantra that we often hear from the self help gurus.

You find that as they guide you in this journey towards self actualization or whatever they want to call it, they focus on self talk – which is basically what you say about yourself.

Some of the self help books even tell you to say things out loud that reinforce that perception you want to create for yourself. For example, they may tell you to say things like, “I am happy, successful and creative. I am a likeable person with many friends.”

Does this self help stuff work? I think it does on a certain level and proves that language can change your life.

By NathanG — On Feb 11, 2012

@SkyWhisperer - What’s interesting is what happens when language and cognition become connected, regardless of the process. The result is that when we think we tend to “speak” in our minds.

I remember this quite vividly when I took a speed reading course. In that course they taught us to read the words without speaking them in your head as you read; in others, decouple the words from their speech.

I admit that it was a very challenging task at first, but as I got better at it, speed reading became easier. Words would go from the page of the book, bypass my speech center, and go directly to my consciousness.

By SkyWhisperer — On Feb 11, 2012

I believe that cognition comes first, and language comes later. They both develop independently. I think the real issue is levels of cognition.

For example, a baby has very basic cognitive abilities, enough to understand his basic needs and wants. However, later cognition develops to the point where it can accommodate more abstract thinking.

At that stage I believe that language and cognition begin to operate side by side to give meaning to the abstractions, and allow the individual to elucidate ideas on an even deeper level.

Then comes the issue of the different forms of language. Personally, I think that the written forms of language enable an individual to flesh out abstract concepts more easily than the spoken forms. With spoken language we deal with the world around us only in very concrete terms in my opinion.

By titans62 — On Feb 11, 2012

@TreeMan - I was thinking of the same thing while I was reading through the article. The really hard part of that argument is that it would be hard to test. You would basically have to have a child raised without any type of language. As far as ethics go, you could certainly not do it with a human. I don't even think a deaf child would qualify, since he would still have parents teaching him sign language or at least facial expressions.

There are a couple of wild hypothetical examples I could think of that would isolate language and cognition. One would be the idea of being raised by wolves or the equivalent. I'm sure there is some kind of case study out there were a child was abandoned, but I'm not a psychologist or sociologist, so I wouldn't know about it.

Going back to a deaf child, though, I would be interested to see comparisons between them and regular children. Like someone else mentioned, I don't think language is a requirement for cognizant development, I just think language helps shift development. By that token, a deaf child who didn't have to learn language would be more inclined toward developing tactile skills.

By TreeMan — On Feb 10, 2012

@cardsfan27 - I think you could even take your argument a step further, but I think I would lean more toward the "cognition leads language" argument. Even though dogs and cats don't have language, they are certainly cognizant, because they can understand humans. If I tell my dog to "sit," he sits. I would argue he understands the word just as well as any human does: sit means to take a certain position. My dog also knows that some things are good and some things are bad. He can't put into words *why* things are good or bad, he just knows because I tell him.

The other argument about language preceding cognition, I really don't think I could ever agree with. Maybe I am just not thinking about it correctly. What is an example where that would ever be the case?

By cardsfan27 — On Feb 10, 2012

@jmc88 - I agree with you and the majority of the others in here, but for a different reason. The article says that language is unique to humans, but I strongly disagree. Sure, humans might be the only species that sets its own rules for language, but what is language, really? All it is is a set of symbols and sounds to represent the things we encounter in life.

Maybe the only reason other animals don't talk is because humans physically evolved the organs sooner than anything else. Whether you're talking about an ant, a dog, or Albert Einstein, every animal reacts to stimuli in its environment. The only real difference with humans is that we can specifically vocalize our interactions with others of our species.

Back to the original point, I think cognition and language have to be separate, because other animals are definitely cognizant, but can't specifically communicate about their surroundings and other abstract ideas.

By jmc88 — On Feb 09, 2012

I think I would go ahead and basically agree with the statement that cognition and language develop independently of each other, just because of the example someone else used. Some very intelligent people have poor grammar and spelling skills. At the same time, though, I can definitely see the argument where they at least have a slight connection. Using my example from above, many intelligent people have poor grammar, but hardly any people who have excellent grammar are unintelligent.

I think language is just another skill like art or math. Some people intrinsically understand how words go together to make sentences, and some people could care less. I have friends who speak multiple languages, and they can immediately take a related language and start to pick out the various phrases and parts of speech just based on sentence structure. Give them a math problem, though, and they're terrified.

By candyquilt — On Feb 09, 2012

@burcinc-- I'm a teacher and I also have quite a few bilingual students in my class (Spanish and English).

There was actually a study done recently by some researchers who wanted to compare the cognitive abilities of students in Puerto Rico and the US. They found that there were cognitive differences between the two groups and reached the conclusion that language shapes cognition.

They said that every language is very unique and so shapes cognition uniquely. Even though everyone is born with the same capacities, our cognition doesn't develop quite the same way if we speak different languages. Isn't that interesting?

By burcinc — On Feb 08, 2012

@StarJo-- I agree with you.

I actually find this topic really interesting because I'm bilingual. When I think, I can think in either one of my native languages and can very easily go back and forth between the two while speaking.

You are so right that there is no hesitation at all while I'm doing all of this. I do it automatically and with ease!

I agree with the article that language is the tool with which the cognitive mind expresses itself. It's very dependent on language and it would prove of little value if we couldn't express it.

I'm trying to learn a third language right now. When I try to speak it, I can't find the right word a lot of the times. So even though I know what I want to say, I freeze up trying to remember it. It's shown me that a very cognitive person can become a dummy when the language is not available!

By ddljohn — On Feb 07, 2012

I have to say that this is a really great article. I don't think I understood the connection between language and cognition so well before.

I think that I'm with the position which says that language develops largely independent of cognition. I absolutely feel that we have thought processes much before we are able to speak. I also don't think that language capabilities is a measurement of cognitive ability.

My brother for example, has never been very good with language. He has difficulty communicating well and will often make incorrect sentences. Despite this, he is very good cognitively and one of the most intelligent people I know.

For me, this is evidence that even though language and cognition are related, they don't develop based on each other. And we can't measure one using the other.

What does everyone else think?

By StarJo — On Feb 07, 2012

How can you separate the two? We often speak without giving much thought to the formation of words, because their meanings are so deeply ingrained within our minds.

Once a person develops an adult vocabulary, cognition and language become almost a part of his subconscious mind. Thoughts take the form of sentences without hesitation, and they seem to flow forth from our mouths independent of our control, at times.

I don't have to think much about language anymore. It is there to serve me as my mind sees fit. I think that language is the most useful tool of cognition.

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