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

Steven Pinker

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The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Context


Early Perspectives on Language Development: The Behaviorist View

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, behaviorism dominated the field of psychology, heavily influencing views of how learning takes place. American behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner (1904–90), known for his work on operant conditioning—learning and behavior modification through positive and negative reinforcements—hypothesized that children's language learning takes place much as learning occurs in other areas. Skinner proposed that language learning results from repetition and imitation and from childhood conditioning to respond to various stimuli. So, for example, as a child babbles, creating sounds like "ma-ma" or "da-da," caregivers respond, rewarding the child through verbal praise and attention. This reinforces the child's behavior, providing encouragement to repeat the behavior.

Behaviorist theory could not, however, explain some of the utterances typical of young children. Sentences such as "Him goed to school today" would rarely be uttered by an adult. Yet, nearly all young children structure sentences in similar ways as they develop language proficiency. Critics of behaviorist perspectives on language development argued that behaviorism fails to explain not only children's language learning, but also adult language learning. They pointed out that most speech uttered by adults is unique.

Pinker's work makes clear how far short behaviorist perspectives on language acquisition fall. Pinker cites various studies that show how children seem to apply rules to construct language they have never been exposed to correctly. For example, children seem to intuitively know that "mice-eater" is possible, but "rats-eater" is not. Pinker argues that behaviorist perspectives on language acquisition cannot account for the sophistication of children's linguistic knowledge.

Chomsky's Universal Grammar

In the 1950s American linguist Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) conducted groundbreaking research on the structure of language that challenged the prevailing behaviorist views of language acquisition. Chomsky concluded from his research that the only explanation for the complexity of human language, particularly the complexity of children's language, is that humans possess an innate "Language Acquisition Device" (LAD). In other words, the human brain is hardwired to learn language. Chomsky proposed that infants are born with Universal Grammar, i.e., a "language template." The template facilitates children's language acquisition by helping them to know that language is rule-governed. Children learn language not by repetition and reinforcement, as the behaviorists claim, but rather by testing hypotheses about which structural rules to apply. This hypothesis-testing allows children the potential to form an infinite number of utterances, most of them novel. According to Chomsky, children learn language because they are predisposed to do so, not because of the input of parents or other caregivers.

Some scholars have criticized Chomsky's nativist perspective on the basis that his theory ignores the important input of parents and the child's environment. Interactionists argue that a child's desire to communicate, as well as the quality of the social environment, play key roles in a child's language development. Pinker, drawing heavily on Chomsky's notion of language as innate, agrees that neither environment nor heredity can be ignored. However, to insist both factors cause behavior is, in Pinker's view, too simplistic. In addition, Pinker sees such a view as minimizing the role of the person. Pinker proposes a more complex interaction. The environment, he suggests, provides input to innate psychological mechanisms, while heredity builds the innate mechanisms, leading to behavior and perceptions. Pinker explains that learning and innateness are not opposites, but that without innate instincts, learning would be impossible.

Basics of Linguistic Theory: The Structure of Language

Though the world's languages vary greatly, many linguistic scholars—Pinker and Chomsky among them—believe humans possess a common, innate template that makes human language learning possible. This template, referred to as Universal Grammar, is a set of rules that underlies all known languages. According to Pinker, Universal Grammar contributes to the deep structural similarities across languages, as well as to children's ability to acquire language so rapidly. The term grammar, as used by linguists, refers to the rule-governed structure of language. Descriptive grammar, which is the primary work of linguists, describes the rules intuitively known by native speakers of a language. Prescriptive grammar, in contrast, refers to the rules of language valued by a society and taught in schools.

Numerous studies suggest that young children have an innate knowledge that language is governed by rules. Children learn the rules through a process of hypothesis testing. They use their knowledge of the finite set of rules governing their language to create an infinite number of possible utterances. Pinker attributes such abilities to the design of language as a "discrete combinatorial system." A child does not acquire language by stringing words together. Instead, the child uses rules to combine words and phrases in a potentially infinite number of ways, most of which the child has never heard spoken before.

In all languages, a set of rules governs word, phrase, and sentence formation. All languages are made up of words stored in what is called the mental lexicon of the brain. In its mental lexicon the brain stores not only words but also various rules about how the words can be used and the forms they can take. The rules for forming words into phrases and phrases into sentences are known as syntax. Knowledge of a language's syntax allows native speakers to know how to combine words in ways that make sense to others who speak the language. They can also understand utterances by other speakers of that language.

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