In Russia, Lev Vygotsky published “Thought and Language” in 1934.  Soviet Russia being what it was at the time, Vygotsky’s work did not appear in the West until the late 1960s.

Vygotsky proposed that language is first learned through social interactions, then is used in egocentric speech (the talking aloud to oneself so common in toddlers),  and is finally internalized into inner speech.  This inner speech becomes what most of us mean when we refer to thinking.  This is how language effects the way people think: through internalized rules encoded by the first language learned.  This explains why a person who learns a language late (no matter their level of facility with the language) can always be identified by native speakers – they simply do not think the same way as the native speaker.

Another important aspect of Vygotsky’s work was the distinction he made between “meaning” and “sense.”  “Meaning” is defined by social norms (e.g., a dictionary) whereas “sense” is the “sum of all the psychological events aroused in a person’s consciousness by the word” (Kozulin, 1985). This is the distinction that I prefer to make between a words definition (dictionary) and a word’s meaning (the concept it evokes in the other person).

The use of verbal symbols not only is a prerequisite to overt social communication but also facilitates the covert self-communication in which we engage to structure our own thought processes.

Hoffman, Lau and Johnson (1986) (paraphrasing Bloom)

This idea is very much like the “web of belief” that I reference in other posts. It’s important to realize that our early language acquisition directs and controls our internal dialog (what we call thinking), and as such limits our ability to think outside of our linguistic box.

In order to experience God, you have to strip away the linguistic labels that you habitually use. This is why Christian contemplatives use silence as a spiritual discipline and why Jesus went alone into the desert for 40 days. Until you shut off the internal chatter in your skull you can not experience the divine:

All the soul needs to do during these times of quietude is be still and make no noise. What I mean by noise is rushing around with the intellect trying to rustle up reflections of gratitude and words of praise for the gift you are being given. It’s that impulse of mind to catalogue your transgressions to convince yourself that you do not deserve to receive such grace. It’s that commotion the faculties create, the intellect trying to conjure up images and the memory rushing to store them. These faculties wear me out.

(Saint) Teresa of Avila, quoted in Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch
 Fray Juan de la Miseria [Public domain]
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