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

Steven Pinker

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The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Chapter 9 : Baby Born Talking—Describes Heaven | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • Research shows infants have language abilities, perhaps even before birth, which suggests some aspects of language are not learned but innate.
  • By 10 months of age, a baby has lost the ability to distinguish all phonemes and responds only to those used by their caregivers. Since children are not yet speaking at 10 months, their "speech analysis module" does not sort sounds based on meaning. Pinker proposes this module plays a key role in learning words and grammar.
  • All babies babble the same sounds.
  • All babies' first words tend to be objects, actions, and routines used in social interactions.
  • Children can distinguish word boundaries.
  • The discrete combinatorial system of language facilitates the child's ability to expand their sentences in length and complexity at a rapid developmental pace.
  • By the age of three, the child obeys most grammatical rules, respects language universals, and makes errors consistent with grammatical rules.
  • Language is a social activity. Predisposition for learning language is hardwired in the human brain. Yet, children do not generate grammar in the absence of interaction with other speakers as shown by studies of "wild children."
  • Grammar does not develop through practice or memorization. Because "languages are infinite [and] childhoods finite," children must take the "data" they observe from others and generalize to create novel sentences.
  • The design of the brain provides a "blueprint" for grammar, that is, for Universal Grammar. This blueprint limits the types of generalizations children make to what is possible across languages. By limiting how words can be combined, the child is freed to focus on the kinds of combinations that will work. This constraint is important, given that the potential for novel phrase construction is infinite.
  • Language learning occurs by analyzing phrases and applying grammatical rules according to word categories, rather than learning by words in isolation.
  • Guidance for children's language learning comes from two sources. The first is an assumption that parents' speech models the basic design of phrase structure, which could imply that the X-bar theory of phrase structure is innate. The second is the context of parents' speech, which helps the child infer proper phrase structure.
  • The child's innate ability to organize linguistic input according to the categories of noun and verb—rather than parental feedback—facilitates the child's ability to learn language rapidly.
  • Though babies are predisposed to learn language, they are not born with speech because they need to listen to others and themselves to produce language.
  • The newborn's brain is incomplete concerning language development. After birth language develops in conjunction with the brain's development.
  • The brain is most plastic through the age of six, allowing for predisposition to language learning during this critical period. After age six changes in the brain make language learning more difficult. From an evolutionary standpoint, birth through age six is the period when such facility is most needed. Then it begins to disappear to conserve resources.
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