How Does the Language of Comics Impact Thinking?

By | Friday, August 06, 2021 Leave a Comment
There was an episode of Radiolab I heard some years ago where they were talking about language and how it impacts thinking. They were looking at some people who had grown up under different/unusual language circumstances... deaf people who created their own sign language, for example. The basic conclusion -- if you can really call it "basic" -- was that the language we learn and use has a direct and notable impact on how our brains process information.

One of the examples they brought out was this group who created their own sign language when they were kids a few decades ago. It was taught and passed down for the next generation or two, and there are people in their 40s with this language, as well as kids in their pre-teens. Not surprisingly, the actual language grew and evolved, but more significantly, the younger kids had different thought processes than the adults. The adults had only come up with one sign for "think" while the kids had a variety to work from: "think", "understand", "believe", "dream", etc. Going hand in hand with that, psychologists found that the kids did a much better job of comprehending what other people might be thinking and feeling than those older people who had fewer words to work with. The kids were "thinking about thinking" while the adults simply did not.

They also spoke about another deaf man who did not have a sign language at all for many years. He grew up to adulthood having essentially no language capabilities at all. (I didn't catch many more details than that. I tuned in to the program part-way through.) But, interestingly, once he did learn language, he began to think differently. He would never elaborate much on it, but he seemed to suggest that, prior to language, his thought process was more primal in nature. Eating, sleeping, shelter, etc. Having language allowed him to process the world differently and think in larger, more abstract terms.

(And before anybody brings it up, that whole "Eskimos have 1,000 different words for 'snow'" bit is a myth. The differing tribes that are generally lumped into the eskimo culture don't have appreciably more or less words for 'snow' than any other language.)

Now let's slide this conversation over to comics.

Comics have a language component, obviously. But beyond the typical word balloons and narrative boxes and sound effects you might be thinking of, the comics are something of a language unto themselves. The way you read comics is different than how you read English. (Or Japanese. Or French. Or whatever your native language is.) Think of the now-classic anecdote in Understanding Comics where Scott McCloud's mother saw two separate pictures instead of a single sequence. She couldn't "read" the language of comics. Despite being able to see the images and read the English words in a comic book, she couldn't read comics.

If your understanding of language(s) shapes how you think, how your brain processes information, wouldn't having the ability to read comics imply that comic readers think differently than non-comic readers? I don't know what that difference might be -- maybe comics folks can more readily break tasks down into component parts, maybe they have a better understanding of spatial relationships, maybe they can better differentiate discrete chunks of information, etc. -- but it seems to me that such a distinctly different type of language (comparing comics to English, as opposed to comparing Spanish to French) that almost has to come with some kind of different way of brain processing, if my understanding of that reporting was accurate.

Neil Cohn is probably the best known person in comicdom that's doing actual research along these lines, but to the best of my knowledge, he has not (and, Neil, please correct me if I'm wrong) specifically written on the psychological angle of being able to view the world differently because of a different language base.

But that would make for an absolutely fascinating study, I think: seeing how comic readers think differently than non-comics readers. (Let me be clear, too, I'm talking about people who CAN'T read comics, not people who DON'T read comics.) My obvious bias would be to assume that it would provide an advantage to be able to think as a comics reader, but I would certainly like to see what/how that might manifest itself.
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