The Language Instinct – Steven Pinker Book Summary

The Language Instinct – Steven Pinker | Free Book Summary

The Language Instinct – Steven Pinker

We are all born with the innate capability to understand languages, and it is not a man-made invention.

A Natural At Learning Languages

  • Humans have an innate language instinct that allows them to approach communication on a completely different level.
  • Language is the biological adaptation that allows us to communicate.
  • Anthropological studies have been conducted on tribes that had no contact with the outside world until the 1920s. Language was learned naturally among those tribes, with no formal instruction.

The First Instinct

Children can learn languages as early as 18 months old, but they can only learn by observing adults who do it correctly, so they have no way of actively telling what’s right from wrong – they aren’t studying languages, they just absorb them.

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Nonetheless, they follow the right rules at the right time. Even deaf children who learn sign language from their parents use proper grammar.

The language learning window

Children have a “window” for maximum language learning, whereas adults typically struggle to learn a second language.

This window must exist because children under the age of four learn grammar and vocabulary at an exponential rate that cannot be explained by adult intervention or guidance. The precise words they recall and the grammar they use have a biological basis.Free book, podcast summaries

The two fundamental principles

All languages are founded on the same two fundamental principles.

How do we communicate so easily with one another? 

What is it about language that makes it so easy to communicate? 

Two forces are at work here:

  • The sign’s arbitrary nature.
  • Our limitless use of finite media.

Signs are arbitrary

The shape that words take has nothing to do with their meaning.

The word “cat,” for example, does not sound like a cat. Cats make the sound “meow,” and they walk silently, whereas “cat” is a strong, snappy, short, and loud word.

The sound distracts us from trying to figure out what the word “cat” means. This is because generations of rote learning have linked the word to the image.

Infinite use of finite media

The number of words in any given language is limited, but the number of possible word combinations is not. This principle enables us to express everything.

Because we use grammar rules to create our own sentences, we are not limited in how much we can express, which makes it easier to get your point across.

Grammar is getting worse

In the 1920s, bad grammar was severely punished in school, but today it’s not such a big deal, primarily because grammar rules are only one type of rule that determines how well you use language.

Grammar rules are prescriptive, which means they dictate how we should speak or write. Scientists are now concerned with descriptive rules, which define how we actually communicate.

The right grammar is subjective

You can be descriptively correct while being prescriptively incorrect, just as a driver can follow the rules of physics in his car while breaking the laws of the country he’s driving in.

Correct grammar is relative, so don’t be too concerned about it!

Our brains are hard-wired for learning language

Language learning has been available to humans for approximately 2.5 million years.

Specific genes and brain regions must develop for an individual to practice language.

Humans are so hardwired for language that suppressing their ability to learn and use it is like suppressing the instinct to pull a hand away from a hot surface.

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