Try to think of something without using any language. Go on, try. Impossible, isn’t it? This more than demonstrates the intricate relationship between language and thought. Our guest for this month, Dr. Sudipto Chatterjee, talks about this interdependence between thought and language and how, both directly and indirectly, language plays a vital role in mental health.
Dr. Chatterjee, having worked as a consultant psychiatrist in Australia and India, has also published in high impact scientific journals like Lancet and has worked closely with the World Health Organisation. Couldn’t have had a better guest for an interesting conversation, could we?
George Orwell’s famous quote “If thought corrupts language, language can corrupt also thought,” could be a very good point to start our interview with. What would you like to say about this?
Thought and language are inseparable, aren’t they? Language is the prerequisite for thought and they share a very bidirectional relationship, as George Orwell rightly points out. It is, however, important to note the context in which Orwell wrote this. The relationship is not necessarily negative. If thoughts and language can corrupt each other, they can also enrich.
So just taking this one step further, would you agree that language and mental health are inseparable as well?
Yes, definitely. The bidirectional relationship that language shares with thought can very well be established with the relationship that it shares with the practice of mental health as well. Thought and language are inseparable and so are thought and mental health. And hence, language is very central to the field of mental health. Language disorders are fundamental diagnostic features of certain mental conditions that people suffer by.
Autism is one such disorder, isn’t it?
Yes. Children with autism and the entire spectrum of disorders have problems with expressive language.
So does language play an important role in the treatment of autism?
Since the child has problems in expressing himself, language needs to be dealt with very centrally. The treatment would normally start by understanding how the child is able to process his emotions and thoughts and translate them into words. And then basic things of functional importance like communicating simple emotions, expressing without anger, etc. are addressed. Treatment also includes managing the entire dynamics with the family as well.
Do you think the lack of language or the ability to express aggravates mental health problems?
A person could have an absolute lack of language due to whatever reasons where he is incapable of using conventional language to communicate or he could have difficulties in expressing. In the first case, as we can imagine, it is more common to see mental health problems because the absence of language forms a very disturbing divide between the person and society at large. In the second case, mental health problems due to frustration could be seen since the person has the ability to talk but is unable to articulate or process his emotions.
As a mental health practitioner, how important is language in your life?
Language is one of the only tools that we have! Most of our work revolves around talking to patients and their families. The entire process of engagement is about communicating with groups or individuals. Without good communication skills, it will be impossible to even figure out what the main problem is. Secondly, choice of language plays a very vital role in actually being able to help the patient. It is very important to choose the right words because things we say can very easily stigmatize someone who is already very vulnerable to being subjected to negativity and discrimination.
This is a slightly different topic but we all hear about how learning new languages and being multilingual is actually beneficial in the long run? Is this medically true?
People who speak multiple languages tend to have the faculties to deal with brain degeneration. That is, they fare better in old age. Learning and speaking multiple languages activates the brain like playing an instrument does. It is a higher order cognitive exercise which helps the brain remain active for the longest possible time. So yes, we can say it is medically true.
As a parting shot, do you have any more languages on your bucket list even after speaking almost seven languages already?
Yes. I would love to learn Spanish some day. I think the literature written in the hispanophone countries is one of the most beautiful ones in the world. I have read a lot of translations of Spanish literature and I have always been fascinated by it. And no matter how brilliant the translations have been, I would love to read it in its original language.