The Language Instinct


Do babies really have an innate ability to absorb language? Is language learned from blank slate or do we have a blueprint of language in our brains? Can adults learn just as well as children? These are some common questions people have about language.

As a foreign language learning enthusiast myself, and a parent trying to arm my baby daughter with the foreign language skills she can use in the future. These questions weighed very heavily in my mind.

But this book provides pure enlightenment.

My love affair with foreign language and a language learning “instinct” children started with watching this short clip many years ago about the work of Dr. Patricia Kuhl when I was in college:

This video inspires and raises many questions. The Language Instinct answers many of these questions.

How many languages can my child learn? Can I as an adult learn the same way a child learns?

In a nutshell it says that humans have an language blueprint inherited from our evolutionary past, and just as we suspect, language is built around this blueprint during a crucial window of time as as child grows.

The very first part of the book is rather academic in nature and it may be a bit off-putting for non-linguists who just want to wade through academic discussions. But it will all fit into place as you push through this part.

An crucial part of the book for me was where he takes the reader on the journey  how language is acquired by children, stage by stage. It is as if he shows you how the characteristics of a language fill up this blueprint of language which all children have.

Pinker provides lots of counter examples in the book by giving examples that test his theories, such as the case of a child of abusive parents who we deprived of any meaningful exposure to language, or hearing children of deaf parents who watch a lot of TV, and other interesting case studies.

It also explains why it feels better for us to say “billy, bow, beep” rather than “beep, bow, billy”. It has to do with the amount mental effort it takes to create the sound.

This book also enlightened me about sign language. It turns out that the same or a similar kind of instinctive blueprint for language is used by children who learn sign language.

It’s absolutely fascinating.

You can check out a lot more reviews of this book on Amazon here.

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