The Language Instinct
This semester I read the book The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language by Steven
Pinker, a professor of Psychology at Harvard University. This book explores the idea that language is innate.
In other words he believes that all humans possess “the instinct to learn, speak, and understand language”
(pg. 3). Pinker argues that language is biological, and that even without formal training children will develop
ways to communicate. He believes that language is an evolutionary adaptation that developed because
humans needed a system of communication.
I think that this book is a good companion to the course “Neurobiology and Behavior” for many different
reasons. The main reason is that this book is not hard to read. Pinker writes for a diverse audience with
varying degrees of scientific knowledge. He is very good at explaining his ideas and providing several
examples. The second reason is that, as Pinker asserts in his introduction, language is an extremely
interesting topic. It is difficult to read this book without becoming excited about language. Pinker is
passionate about this subject, and you can tell he enjoyed writing the book. He reminds you throughout the
book that language is an amazing ability. We can use language to relate experiences and cause others to
have specific thoughts. Language is a huge part of what separates us from other creatures, and is a definitive
part of the human experience.
Each chapter in the book is devoted to an aspect of language, which would make this an easy book to
read part of in a large class. In one chapter he discusses how language develops in infants. In another, he
writes about the biological and evolutionary aspects of language. He also included a chapter discussing the
variation of languages and how language changes across time and culture. Each chapter could easily be read
on it’s own, but together they tell a very plausible story about how and why language develops. Pinker also
devotes part of the book to myths or popular ideas about language that are incorrect, and takes the time to
explain how these beliefs may have developed and why they are untrue. At the end of the book he also
includes a glossary of terms, which I found very helpful.
I also thought it added a lot to the book that Pinker cited his own research, and the research of other
linguists and psychologists to lend credibility to his theories. It was interesting to read about specific studies
he had completed, and what he learned from each one. As a person very interested in scientific research, I
found this fascinating.
One reason this book might not be very good to read in the course “Neurobiology and Behavior” is that
there was not a lot of hard science. Most of what Pinker discusses is theoretical, although when he writes
about complex biological topics he is very clear and easy to understand. Pinker also does not leave room for
debate. He believes that his view on language is the right answer, and that no one should challenge his
beliefs. This seems to clash with the basic philosophy of the course, which is that there is no right answer
and that everything should be questioned.
Even though the book did have some flaws, overall I really enjoyed reading it and would recommend
the book to anyone interested in understanding more about language. Even if you do not think you are
interested in language, reading this book will change your mind. A lot of non-fiction books are very dry, but
Pinker writes as if he is having a conversation with you. He even uses examples from popular culture when
explaining his ideas. After finishing the book, I may not have agreed with all of Pinker’s ideas but I was very
entertained while reading it and I feel like I gained a lot of knowledge in doing so. I definitely plan on reading
Pinker’s others books over the summer.
Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: HarperCollins: 1995.