The Language Instinct

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language
Steven Pinker 1994

Relying upon his background in linguistics and cognitive science while richly borrowing from anthropology, history, and biological sciences Steven Pinker provides a compelling argument that humanity’s unique ability to communicate through spoken language is not a learned trait but rather an innate human instinct. Although a baby cannot begin speaking as soon as it born, unlike a foal’s ability to begin walking as soon at is drops from its mother’s womb, the human infant’s inability to speak at birth is not due to the need to learn how to speak, but is dependent upon the fact that the infant’s brain is still developing the neural connections necessary to control vocal cords, focus auditory ability and develop the articulatory capacity to give sounds to meaning.

Now, understandably what I may have just described to you might align with your definition of learning but the distinction is that although it is true that humans do learn the specific sounds attributed to specific words used within the cultural language that surrounds them, the process of speaking through verbal language to communicate one’s relationship to the environment surrounding the self is an innately human instinct. Infants and children must be taught how to read and write, but the act of communicating through verbal speech is not a learned attribute. Different cultures approach communicating with infants differently: some speak to them in “baby-language” of goo-goo/gah-gah, while others speak to them as though they are adults, and others don’t even speak to their babies until the babies begin speaking back to them. Despite these different approaches, all cultures will develop young children capable of speaking with their elder peers regardless of the way in which they were “taught” how to speak.

This theory is further supported by neurological sciences that have identified areas of the brain, such as Brocca’s area, that have been demonstrated to be central to the capacity to speak and understand speech. Chimpanzees do have similarly shaped areas of their brains, however when chimps or gorillas are “taught” to use sign language, completely distinct areas of the brain are involved, and the similarly appearing Brocca’s area do not seem to be involved in the chimp’s “communication” with sign language. Pinker explains this distinction with one of the best quotes that to describe brain function that I have read in a while:

“The Brain is a special kind of organ, the organ of computation, and unlike any organ that moves stuff around in the physical world such as the hip or the heart, the brain does not need its functional parts to have nice cohesive shapes.” (322)

The human brain is wired for speech unlike its closest relative the chimpanzee. Humans have an innate drive to communicate regardless of their cultural upbringing because language is just as innate to the human condition as is seeing with the eye or smelling with the nose.

I must acknowledge that my review above paints the picture that The Language Instinct leans heavily upon the biological sciences and human development to argue its point, however this skewed perspective is my error only because the chapters that focused on these sciences were the ones that most convinced me because I have a background in biology and health sciences.

Pinker’s book is very well rounded in his approach and he uses cognitive sciences and linguistics to develop most of his arguments. There was an entire chapter devoted to grammar and an entire chapter devoted to words and Pinker relies heavily on Noam Chomsky for some of his cognitive science/linguistic approach to language. I’ve never read Chomsky and I’ll admit that during these earlier chapters of Pinker’s book I found myself skimming through several of the sentence diagrams that Pinker used to outline his point. Although I skimmed through these sections I didn’t feel that I was missing much because Pinker’s argument was clear: despite the diversity of approximately 6,000 distinct human languages present on the Earth, all languages work in much the same way to communicate actions and nouns present in the environment.

One highly interesting concept unveiled in the chapter entitled Mentalese is that although written language is very structured and organized, verbal conversation is rarely as articulate as we would like to believe. Much of spoke conversation is filled with silences, rephrasing, and nonsense. However, despite the broken communication observed in verbal communication, humans are often able to understand each other and can even guess what one another is trying to communicate before the thought is completely translated to verbal speech because:

“When it comes to communicating a thought to someone else, attention spans are short, and mouths are slow.” (72)

This book was handed to me by a friend almost 8 years ago and has been sitting on my shelf as one of those books I always told myself that I would put off until later and likely never read. It is my shame that I put off reading The Language Instinct for so long because I have found it to be a very insightful and educational read, well worth my time and easy to digest.


About hardlyregistered

The meandering observations of a 30 something guy.
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One Response to The Language Instinct

  1. Pingback: It is Finished | HardlyWritten

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