By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Arthur Morey
“The Language Instinct” explores the origin and mechanics of human language. The author, Steven Pinker, offers more than a dilettante wants to know about language mechanics. But, Pinker offers credible and interesting information about where human language comes from and how it evolves.
Pinker’s hypothesis is that language has evolved exclusively for human beings. One surmises Pinker calls it an instinct because natural selection is not from one specific gene. Pinker views language instinct as a selective Darwinian’ adaptation of more than one gene; probably many genes. This Darwinian’ adaptation offers a framework for acquisition and use of language. The framework is like a builder’s scaffolding.
Scaffolding offers a support network for the construction of a variety of buildings. To a former builder, it seems Pinker is describing biological scaffolding for language. No language communication, just as no building, will be exactly the same even though similar scaffolding is used for construction.
As scaffolding ages, it deteriorates. Pinker notes that linguistically accurate use of language diminishes as humans grow older. Over time, scaffolding for learning a new language decays.
A young person learns the nuance of a native human language more precisely than an older person. Pinker notes learning a new language is quicker, easier, and unconditionally accepted by children between a mother’s pregnancy and a baby’s maturity. After three years, learning a new language becomes more difficult; and later in life, less nuanced or foundationally integrated.
Getting away from this essayist’s crude scaffolding analogy, Pinker notes that human language acquisition and use is a complicated process of interaction between genetics and environment.
One learns how to communicate based on three variables. One is inheritance; the second is biological process, and the third is social affiliation. Instinct for language acquisition and use is inborn, and biologically/neurologically interconnected. As humans mature, language is refined by environmental and sociological interaction.
Pinker suggests monkeys will never have a conversation with humans and that trainers positing such an event delude themselves.
When a dog named Arthur hears its owner say “Arthur, it is time for bed”, the dog hears “Arthur, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah”; then trots to his kennel based on operant conditioning; not understanding. (Reward for performance induces behavior like the noise of Pavlov’s bell makes dogs salivate.) Pinker argues that non-human members of the animal kingdom do not have a human language instinct.
There are many digressions in Pinker’s book about mechanics of speech, language dialects, and specific language disabilities. He criticizes some writers for improper use of language and enlightens listeners about the teachings of Norm Chomsky.
Changes in human language, according to Pinker, are evolutionary inevitabilities. The complicated process of language creation is always in a state of change.
Pinker delves into dialects of language that differ by population cohort, environmental interaction, and social interchange. Pinker argues for continuation of rule-making in language but discounts belief that rules should not, cannot, or will not change. Pinker infers language rules should keep pace with common understanding and clear communication.