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The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

Steven Pinker
Perennial, 2000
Pp. xv + 525

Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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The Un-textbook
It's a paperback book that spent some time on the New York Times best-sellers list. Unrevised from the 1994 release, Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct" is no less timely now than then, though some of the references might be updated. Why an un-textbook? Because this is required reading in a number of MATESOL/Applied Linguistics courses, as well as in numerous TESOL Diploma programs. Yet it reads like a popular non-fiction. Mostly.

Pinker did the best job I've yet seen on making Universal Grammar accessible to those of us with IQ scores under 180.

Enjoyable Reading
This guy can write! The book was a pleasure to savor, excellent wordsmithing throughout, clarity in discussion everywhere except for the chapters discussing Universal Grammar. But then, who can make Chomsky's Universal Grammar comprehensible? Even here, Pinker did the best job I've yet seen on making UG accessible to those of us with IQ scores under 180.

But never mind Chomsky. The book is filled with quips, anecdotes, and analogies for the common man - everything but Bart Simpson (and I got to expect that next!). Any book that has remarks from Noam Chomsky, Atlantic Montly, and William F. Buckley on the back cover merits caution, but in fact I found the book generally accessible and entertaining. Not at all what one would expect from a professor of cognitive science at MIT! It's not quite the thing while standing on the subway, but certainly fine for quiet evenings at home. Be prepared to engage your mind.

We've all read those "profound" textbooks (in whichever subject area), written by those Lords of scholarship, that grace us with absolute truths. I suppose Pinker slips a few of those in here too, but most of it is much closer to us mere mortals. I rather like his approach, with statements such as "I think common sense wins this one" (p. 149).

On the other hand, this isn't really a book that will "teach" you anything. You'll learn a lot, because virtually every statement is substantiated with both research and really clear examples, but Pinker crosses so many lines that it's hard to come away with any particular single item in mind. The Language Instinct is less about mastering the details than a position paper: a barrage of information that would overwhelm those offering other perspectives on how language is acquired. Again and again the book refers to Darwinism and the physiology of humans, often with comparisons to other animals. For Pinker, clearly language is less about learning than tuning and training that which is within us, hence the name "Language Instinct."

Immoderate Positions
Pinker is not shy, and no doubt there are many who disagree with many of his positions. Earlier chapters were of great interest to me, where he takes on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Krashen's input hypothesis. I'm not totally convinced, but it was nice to read clearly-thought opposing positions to these concepts which have become so much a staple of shilly-shally "weak-form communicative language teaching" workshops.

I guess, as an expert on cognition, he thinks he has to take us down these paths of how the brain works - sort of like the computer expert that insists on teaching us what is going on in the background while we just want the wordprocessor to work. Even when he finally admits that various experts disagree, and the real answer is yet unknown. So why did you tell me all that?

Read the book. Skip or brush a couple of the denser chapters if you must, it really bogs down in a few places where grammar and sentence comprehension comes to the fore, but the rest is brilliant. You won't agree with all of it: frequently Pinker does a good job of portraying two sides of an argument, and you may find yourself agreeing rather more with the side he does not take, but you will increase your understanding of the issues.

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