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It seems that consciousness can only be investigated through self-report, i.e. language/communication of some kind. Is it believed that consciousness could nonetheless exist without language?

Yes, it is assumed that non-human animals have varying degrees of consciousness - but this seems somewhat unverifiable without our capacity to ask them.

Conversely, has there ever been a human being to grow up without language for years and then learn a language sufficiently well to be questioned regarding their subjective experience prior to learning the language?

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    $\begingroup$ Related: How does a language deprived person think? $\endgroup$ – Arnon Weinberg Mar 27 at 19:23
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    $\begingroup$ I would like to add albeit with only some relevance that with the redent discovery of aphantasia, that is a condition of not having a mind's eye, there are now a lot of self-reported cases of people lacking a mind's ear as well. As far as I can tell these people are nonetheless behaviorly conscious whichever way you look at it. In this case these people would not be using language in any active sense throughout most of their life. (Furthermore, all the same points could be raised with regards to the mind's eye) $\endgroup$ – LPenguin Apr 21 at 1:18
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Yes, as Ray Jackendoff reports in chapter 16 of A User's Guide to Thought and Meaning, where he answers precisely this question:

A more promising source of evidence comes from congenitally deaf individuals who have had no exposure to a signed language. If they learn a signed language as adults, we can ask them what their thinking was like before. In a BBC documentary on the relatively new signed language of Nicaragua, one such person says (in the English transla-tion), “I didn’t even know what it meant to think. Thinking meant nothing to me.” Of course he must have been able to think before he learned to speak—after all, he wasn’t a robot or a zombie, he was func-tioning in society at least to some degree. But—as predicted by the Unconscious Meaning Hypothesis—he wasn’t aware of it.
Another report presents the experience of a deaf individual who had never put together an English sentence until he was 9 or 10 years old, and was not exposed to sign language until college. He has memories of wondering how the world worked, but having no way to ask the questions. He recalls having a sense that other people could communicate with each other, but that he wasn’t able to. He describes saving up his questions until he had a way of asking them. For example, he reports having wondered at 5 or 6 years old how people communicated on the telephone. One day he wanted his mother to stop talking on the phone. He knew from observation that a hose could be crimped to stop the flow of water, so he applied this reason-ing to the telephone cord and tried to stop the sound by crimping the cord (to no avail, of course). According to this report, then, this deaf boy had questions in his mind without having a language to think in. What’s more, his story about the telephone shows that he was able to use analogical reasoning without talking his way through the logic in his head. The Unconscious Meaning Hypothesis leads us to ask: In what form did he experience these questions and this reasoning? Does this represent some form of “imageless thought”? From his description when asked about it, it sounds as though his experience was in terms of some kind of visual or kinesthetic imagery—the feel one has for “how things work”— accom-panied by a feeling of connection or of questioning a connection between observed actions.
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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome - I like your nick :) Having said that - link-only or copy-paste-only answers are discouraged. Rephrasing it in your own words is the best way to go about this. As of now it's a long swath of text that is not really inviting to read. $\endgroup$ – AliceD Mar 31 at 7:23
  • $\begingroup$ Fascinating. Thanks a lot for this reference. $\endgroup$ – acephalous Mar 31 at 20:49
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Language is a means of expression and communication. It serves as a medium of expression. Consciousness is independent of language. One (human or any animal) can be conscious however to report and verify, as you said, we need a language or any medium of communication.

Consciousness could safely considered an axiom in psychology.

For the second question, you have bumped on to one of the canonical pairs. How do we explain nothing? Ideally we cannot. The same is with consciousness. It is a fundamental thing. A formal verification might require a revisit to the fundamentals of philosophy and psychology.

Reference: Thought without language: Thought without awareness? - L.Weiskrantz

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. It's nonetheless unclear to me why we can simply assert that 'consciousness is independent of language' given that we have few means to question people who are deprived of language whether they are aware of their conscious experience... But thank you for the reference, I will look further into it! $\endgroup$ – acephalous Mar 31 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ I am not able to get you. You asking why we cannot assert or why we can assert? $\endgroup$ – Bussller Apr 1 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ I am asking why we can assert that 'consciousness is independent of language'. This seems like an unverifiable statement, since proving it would require communication of some form (language) from the conscious subject... $\endgroup$ – acephalous Apr 2 at 10:42
  • $\begingroup$ O.K. The rational behind is, language (spoken, written) is not the only form of communication. We think only in terms of language symbols and sounds. However, the expression of thoughts and intents can manifest by several other means without consciousness (I suggest "Gut feelings - Gerd Gigerenzier"). $\endgroup$ – Bussller Apr 2 at 21:09

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