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

Steven Pinker

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The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Summary



Language Is an Instinct

Pinker, a cognitive psychologist and linguist, explores how the mind creates language and, in the process, makes a case that humans are innately predisposed to learn language. Pinker writes for the lay audience. His explanations, interpretations of scientific research, and examples from everyday life—blended with humor—make the complex notion of human language as an instinct understandable.

Language Is Not Learned

Pinker refutes the common belief that children learn language from caregivers much as they learn any other skill. This belief, inspired by behaviorist perspectives on learning, suggests language is learned through the environment and is thus a "cultural invention." Pinker carefully constructs a case to show language is not learned, but rather is a human "biological adaptation to communicate information." Pinker builds on Chomsky's notion of Universal Grammar—a blueprint within the human brain that allows humans to learn and use language. Because of Universal Grammar, a young child learns language rapidly, regardless of the quality of input they experience. However, in a departure from Chomsky's views, Pinker sees the language instinct as a product of the Darwinian process of natural selection.

Translating Mentalese

According to Pinker, knowing a language is knowing how to translate "mentalese," the language of the human mind, into speech. Humans do this instinctively because the Universal Grammar that all humans possess enables them to utilize the "super-rules" of language. These super-rules are the overarching sets of rules that govern how sounds can form words, words can form phrases, and phrases can form sentences. They allow the human brain to use a finite set of words in the mental lexicon to form an infinite number of novel utterances and understand sentences never before heard. This ability exists because human language is not formed in chain-like patterns. Instead, language is formed in treelike patterns. Words form phrases, and phrases can be nested, one inside the other, in an infinite number of ways. This linguistic ability is a uniquely human trait. Though researchers have attempted to show that chimpanzees can learn language, Pinker exposes each study as flawed.

Languages Are Alike at the Deepest Structural Levels

Pinker argues that the differences in the world's languages are superficial. Human languages are more alike than different at the deepest structural levels. All human languages are equally complex, and every generation of children grasps the complexity instinctively. Pinker concludes that he envisages "seeing through the rhythms to the structures underneath, and [recognizes] we all have the same minds."

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