The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Study Guide

Steven Pinker

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Steven Pinker | Biography


Early Life and Family

Steven Pinker was born on September 18, 1954, and raised in a Jewish community in Montreal, Canada. He credits his parents with nurturing his appetite for new ideas. Pinker notes that his father could make even the most complex concepts accessible, and, according to many reviewers, exhibits such a gift himself. Once a real estate agent, the elder Pinker later became a lawyer. Pinker's mother served as a community volunteer and later became a school counselor and vice principal.

Academic Career

Pinker's interest in human nature and research led him to major in cognitive psychology at McGill University, an institution noted for cutting-edge research on the human brain. After completing his undergraduate studies at McGill in 1976, he pursued a PhD at Harvard University, completing it in 1979. Pinker's research initially focused on visual cognition. Linguistics was a secondary interest until he took a course on theories of mind taught by famous American linguist Noam Chomsky (b. 1928). Pinker's interest in linguistics continued to grow as he studied under a former student of Chomsky's, computational linguist Joan Bresnan (b. 1945). While doing postdoctoral work with Bresnan, Pinker developed his own theory of language acquisition. He taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University before joining the faculty of Harvard University.

Awards and Legacy

Pinker's research on language, particularly children's acquisition of language, has substantially contributed to the scholarly literature base in linguistics. It has earned awards from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. His most significant contribution, however, is arguably the ability to make the complex ideas of language accessible to a popular audience. His books, including The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, have won a variety of honors. The Language Instinct received more than 80 positive reviews and received prizes from the Linguistics Society of America and the American Psychological Association (APA). In addition, it was named one of the 11 best books of 1994 by the New York Times Book Review and one of the 100 best science books of the century by American Scientist. Pinker has been honored as Humanist of the Year and one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People.

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