Steven Pinker - The Language Instinct

"A brilliant, witty, and altogether satisfying book." - The New York Review of Books

"Absorbing. He makes a persuasive, entertaining case." - Time

"An excellent book full of wit and wisdom and sound judgment." - Boston Globe Book Review

"An extremely valuable book, very informative, and very well written as well." - Noam Chomsky

"Steven Pinker reminds us of the pleasures of reading about language, provided people like him are at the wheel." - William F. Buckley, Jr.

Selected as One of the Best Books of the Year by the Editors of the New York Times Book Review

"What are the above reviewers talking about? Skip this book." - Me

I went into this book with high hopes. Apparently, many people enjoyed this book far more than I did. If you are interested in English linguistics then you may like this book. I found much of it to be barely more interesting than reading a textbook on English grammar.

I agree with Pinker's main point about there being a "Language Instinct" in humans. However, I disagree with his assumption that takes this instinct to another level which includes a "Universal Grammar" which humans are born with. Pinker picks and chooses which evidence to use to support his theory (which is actually Chomsky's modified). He appears to ignore studies or facts of human languages which contradict his conclusion.

Pinker uses various children studies to further his case. It should become obvious to parents reading this book that Pinker hasn't actually raised children or he wouldn't make many of the (false) claims and over-generalizations that he does. Children frequently make the kinds of errors that Pinker thinks they don't (and can't if his theory is true because of the supposed innate grammar). Plural, English words are an example used. Not only is this a bad example of Universal Grammar given to all infants at birth--because the older children become, the fewer errors they make--but some languages (like Japanese) don't even use plurals like we do in English.

I wondered as I read some of Pinker's assumptions if he is fluent in a foreign language. Although he uses Japanese as his only other non-English example (to prove Universal Grammar) in many cases, anyone who speaks Japanese (like me) will find large holes in his arguments. For instance, page 111 contains the startling claim that "Japanese and English are looking-glass versions of each other". Although some very simple sentences or parts of sentences can be said to be mirror images of each other, making such a blanket assertion shows that Pinker is ignorant of Japanese or he has ignored countless examples where his Universal Grammar doesn't apply. He finishes this erroneous section on how English and Japanese are the same (just backwards) with another false over-generalization.

"This is a remarkable discovery. It means that the super-rules suffice not only for all phrases in English but for all phrases in all languages, with one modification: removing the left-to-right order from each super-rule." (emphasis added)
Another example of the author's blatant over-generalization method of 'proving' his pre-drawn conclusion can be found on page 177. He claims that "selectivity [of certain sounds] works not only in English but in all languages". He then doesn't bother to cite a single example of where this is the case in any other (let alone every other) language. Is the reader supposed to take Pinker's conclusions on faith?

Pinker goes through a great deal of (boring) detail in mapping the supposed common design of all languages. During this discussion he rarely uses a non-English language to 'prove' his points He doesn't bother to mention the numerous cases where non-English languages have unique or different grammar examples that can't be found in English. Pinker may suffer from English-chauvinism.

He undoubtedly suffers from Homo sapiens chauvinism in his section on primate language (which is generally a rare trait for those who understand natural selection as Pinker does). Previously in the book, Pinker admits that humans who haven't been exposed to language or who have had emotional trauma during the language learning years don't ever acquire full-blown language. They either remain mute or they enjoy only rudimentary language capabilities. So which study does Pinker base most of his critique of primate language studies on? He uses the one in which the chimpanzee wasn't exposed to ASL (American Sign Language) from birth and was emotionally traumatized from an early age. He pretty much ignores the far more successful studies that featured chimps raised as humans from birth and who were taught like humans are taught. Instead he seems to seek to bolster his pre-conceived conclusion by stating that

"True, some of the chimps can carry out these commands more reliably than a two-year-old child, but this says more about temperament than about grammar: the chimps are highly trained animal acts, and a two-year-old is a two-year-old." (page 339)
If a chimp can use ASL better than my 2 year old can speak English, should I then claim that my son is a less-than-highly-trained animal act? Why do humans (but not Nim or other chimps) who are beaten when young and/or not exposed to language from birth who have a difficult time with language get a break in Pinker's book? Why doesn't Pinker bother to inform the reader about Washoe or her son who learned rudimentary ASL from her?

No one is claiming that chimps can sign as well or with as many complexities as human ASL or verbal language users do. I don't understand why Pinker would need to use selective evidence to paint a picture that is different from the picture painted by the actual primate studies taken as a whole. The distorted view that language in non-homo sapiens is merely an "animal act" doesn't seem to help his case either. In fact, later in the same chapter (page 366) he essentially admits that chimp signing is a "protolanguage". I think this is what the primate studies have indicated and what people like Gardner and Fouts have claimed. They haven't stated that any known chimps have a vocabulary and command of syntax that rivals some human adults. Pinker should stick to the statement he makes later on page 366 that "there is a vast continuum of viable language systems varying in efficiency and expressive power, exactly what the theory of natural selection requires".

Pinker's speculatory section (beginning on page 317) on how language might work at the neuron level is about the most thought-provoking and engaging morsel in The Language Instinct. The best portions of the book are when Pinker, more or less, relies on Williams, Dawkins, and Darwin. The second half of Chapter 11, "The Big Bang", is very well done (except for the first few sentences in the concluding paragraph).

How the Mind Works was high on my 'to-read' list after I read an excerpt from it in Natural History. After reading this earlier effort though, I think I will bump it down to the bottom of my priorities. For a review of it see this page which sounds fairly similar to what I tried to convey above about Pinker's earlier effort.

For other critiques of Pinker, see Rattling the Cage by Steven M. Wise, Human Language and Our Reptilian Brain, and Tree of Origin.

from the publisher:
In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, well-known for his revolutionary theory of how children acquire language, lucidly explains everything you always wanted to know about language: how it works, how children learn it, how it changes, how the brain computes it, how it evolved. With wit, erudition, and deft use of everyday examples of humor and wordplay, Pinker weaves our vast knowledge of language into a compelling story: language is a human instinct, wired into our brains by evolution like web spinning in spiders and sonar in bats.

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