Review of Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct"
Why Oldspeak will Never be Forgotten and More
The most basic insight of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct is that whenever a group of two or more people get together anywhere in the world, they will most likely be communicating through language. Steven Pinker is a linguistics professor at Harvard University and known worldwide for his work with language. ‘The Language Instinct” offers Steven Pinker’s thesis and research on how language and communication is an instinct native to all humans. The most interesting central topics discussed in this book are how language is an instinct and how children develop language and grammar skills, the idea of a “Universal Grammar” and what it says about language and the mind, and how language and thought are not the same. Pinker’s book on how language is learned, how it works, changes and is ultimately a basic human instinct, is funny and interesting the whole way through.
Language as an instinct, as basic an idea as it is, is not a widely accepted fact. People generally seem to have the impression that language is learned at a young age and in school and that infants and children merely imitate those around them. However, if observed carefully it appears as though it would be almost impossible for children to learn language purely by memorization and imitation. Pinker provides evidence that language is an instinct in one way by demonstrating the amazing ability of children to learn language. When listening to syllables being played from a recording, infants can tell the difference between slight changes in phonemes. Pinker argues “infants come equipped with these skills; they do not learn them by listening to their parent’s speech” (pg. 267). Research detailing how between the ages of two and three children develop the ability to speak with fluent grammatical conversations so quickly that even researchers are unable to follow the development, supports Pinker’s theory of instinct. It is believed that the “basic organization of grammar is wired into a child’s brain” (pg. 281) and when developing language skills they must develop and understanding of their particular languages nuances. These are the most basic examples of how language is an instinct. This evidence supports the idea of universal grammar, which means that all languages have something in common in their grammatical structure.
Universal Grammar is actually a concept that was developed by Noam Chomsky. The concept was briefly explained by describing how Chomsky claimed that from a “Martian’s-eye-view all humans speak a single language” (pg. 238). In depth studies have shown that there are similar differences among languages. According to Pinker “there seems to be a common plan of syntactic, morphological, and phonological rules and principles, with a small set of varying parameters” (pg. 240), so languages despite seeming different, have subtle similarities. This further supports the concept of a language instinct because it seems to imply that the human brain is capable of creating numerous unique systems of communication, but ultimately since language is the product of the mind, they should all share certain basic qualities- which would account for the “universal grammar”.
The separation between language and thought is the most important concept to understand. Pinker clearly expresses his opinion that “the idea that thought is the same as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity”. Perhaps Pinker is too confident in the logic separating the two words, but in the end it does make sense that they are apart. At first it would seem as though language and thought were connected because we think in language. The thoughts in our head are generally interpreted in our native language, and when conveying our thoughts and feelings we use language. However, language is really a tool, which is what separates it from thought. Language is used to convey our thoughts, but doesn’t necessarily shape them. Pinker uses George Orwell’s notions of Newspeak and Oldspeak from the book “1984” to convey this idea. Newspeak was supposed to provide a medium of expression that would only allow for necessary statements to be made, while other modes of thought about concepts of freedom and equality would be impossible. This concept is entirely dependent on the idea that thought is dependent on words- which it is not. People without a language can still think, so even if Newspeak were to takeover in the year 2050 (which is what Orwell wrote), it would be pointless because “concepts of freedom and equality will be thinkable even if they are nameless” (pg. 73). Once again we see the importance of the language instinct from the fact that we need language to convey our thoughts, but that there is even a separate “language of thought” that is not one language specific but instead made up of all languages and symbols and housed in our minds.
As a student of several languages, the concept of language as an instinct is very logical and almost obvious. People are able to communicate clearly through language using grammatically correct sentences that convey clear meaning without having any particular understanding as to why they structured their phrases in such a specific way. For example, if asked, I would not be able to label all the grammatical structures of these sentences, but I know that what I am writing is generally grammatically correct. We are able to speak quickly and convey thoughts without having to refer back to specific rules of syntax and grammar- they are just known even without being entirely understood. A universal grammar is also understandable not only because it is the brain that creates language, but because as humans we are able to learn different languages. If there were nothing at all in common between any of the languages, perhaps it would be impossible for us to fully grasp the entirely new grammar and so maybe we would not be able to speak a new language. Speaking in some way or another (be it with words or sign language) is vital to our survival since it is one of the only ways for us to express our thoughts and emotions. Even though language and thoughts are separate, to some extent they must be linked, because as stated earlier- when people get together they will talk in some way or another, and when they talk they tell their thoughts. What would happen if we were unable to share our thoughts?
Language was not a topic touched on in class, which is unfortunate because it is incredibly relevant to how we understand and study the brain and behavior. Pinker states “Language is the most accessible part of the mind” (pg. 419), so one would think in a course that discusses the mind, language would be in syllabus. Understandably, many relevant topics were discussed in class. Almost all of them in some way alluded to thought, behavior, or some form of communication, but language itself was neglected. Understanding the idea of a language instinct, particularly in showing child language development, the universal grammar concept, and expressing the difference between language and thought would greatly increase students’ understanding of the mind, brain, and behavior.