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

Steven Pinker

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Course Hero, "The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language Study Guide," May 1, 2020, accessed June 21, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Language-Instinct-How-the-Mind-Creates-Language/.

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Chapter 11 : The Big Bang | Summary

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Key Takeaways

  • Although both Pinker and Noam Chomsky agree on the presence of an innate language instinct, Pinker believes it has occurred as a result of evolution, whereas Chomsky does not.
  • Consistent with modern Darwinian theory, Pinker believes the language instinct is a result of natural selection.
  • Human language is different from any other animal or artificial communication system. The uniqueness results mainly from two factors. The first is the design of human language, that is, grammar's discrete combinatorial design, which results in an infinite number of possible utterances. The second is the location of the language center in the brain.
  • Pinker argues the uniqueness of language does not rule out an evolutionary origin because modern Darwinian theory conceptualizes human evolution as a "bush" rather than a "ladder." Therefore, although chimpanzees appear to be most closely related to humans, their inability to learn language does not rule out an evolutionary origin. Language abilities may have been present in other branches of the evolutionary tree that have since become extinct.
  • Claims that animals can be trained to learn language cannot withstand scientific scrutiny.
  • Some scientists believe the development of a "new [grammar] module" is impossible from an evolutionary perspective since natural selection focuses on "small incremental steps that enhance the present function of the specialized module." Pinker agrees that the development must take place in incremental steps but disagrees that the enhancements have to be to an existing module. He argues the development of a new module can emerge slowly.
  • According to Pinker, other than a belief in divine creation, natural selection is the only reasonable explanation for the complexity of humans' innate language abilities. Such complexity has a low probability of occurring by chance. However, Pinker argues incremental improvements linked to improved reproductive capabilities of human ancestors led to more and more human ancestors with incrementally improved language abilities.
  • The adaptive complexity of the language instinct includes certain features: the discrete combinatorial system of syntax; a second combinatorial system for word building; a large mental dictionary; a vocal track just right for producing speech; phonological rules and structures; speech perception; parsing algorithms; and learning algorithms.
  • Pinker claims the laws of physics, which Chomsky suggests may be responsible for innate language, are inadequate to explain the development of brain circuitry for Universal Grammar.
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