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Book Review: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

Reading The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker motivated me to delve deeper into the study of linguistics beyond  the introductory material presented in natural language processing textbooks. The Language Instinct is an accessible, entertaining, and at times humorous introduction to several important ideas in linguistics, written for a general audience. In the book, Pinker focuses on Universal Grammar, the linguistic theory developed by Noam Chomsky. In describing and defending Chomsky’s theories, Pinker uses anecdotes and examples from a wide variety of studies including his own work in language acquisition in children. But the book is not limited to grammar. Pinker explores a wide range of subjects including the history and development of modern languages, the areas of the brain that processes speech as implied by specific speech pathologies that are associated with injuries to specific brain areas, and speculation about how speech processing might be implemented from a connectionist view of neural networks.

The central theme of the book is that human beings have an innate talent or instinct for acquiring language. The language instinct is embodied in the brain as the language faculty or language organ. The abilities and limitations of the language faculty, thus the structure of language, is determined by the genetic makeup of humans. Supporting the theory of an innate human language faculty is the idea of a Universal Grammar underlying all of the world’s languages. While languages differ, they differ in predictable ways that are constrained by the limits of the human language faculty. Delving deeper, Pinker asserts that there is an internal representation of ideas in the mind that is not dependent on language for conceptualization. We have all had thoughts that we find difficult to put into words so there must be a richer mental representation than written or spoken language.

Pinker has come under a bit of criticism within the field for defending Chomsky too strongly. His critics feel that The Language Instinct is only telling half of the story of linguistic inquiry. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is not the entire field of linguistics, nor even a consensus view of grammar. Within linguistics there is a historically deep division between those who study language as innate versus those who study language as cultural invention. The truth and the most interesting area of study probably lies in the messy middle ground between these two camps. While Pinker unabashedly defends Chomsky’s approach, he does tell you that there are other ways of looking at language and the mind. He tells you when he is saying something controversial and when he is speculating.

There are few books on linguistics written to explain the field to a wide audience. Even if Pinker’s approach is not comprehensive and emphasizes Universal Grammar over other approaches, you will still learn a great deal about language and linguistics by reading his book.  If you have never studied linguistics, The Language Instinct is a good starting point to motivate further study.

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