Saturday, 11 August 2018

Chatterboxes, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker

This post is a summary of the chapter "Chatterboxes" from the book "The Language Instinct" written by the eminent linguist Steven Pinker. This chapter deals with the statement in the title of the book - Is language an instinct for humans?

Language has never been a cultural phenomenon. Language exists and has existed in every culture on earth. No society can claim the title "the cradle of language." This is one of the arguments for claiming that language is innate in human beings. However, for the skeptics, the universality of language may not single-handedly prove the innate nature of language. For instance, Coca-Cola or Facebook are available almost everywhere on earth. Does this mean Coca-Cola and Facebook are innate too? (According to me, the desire to have a drink and to stay connected are innate in human beings. So the universality of language is a conclusive proof.)

Let's look at another argument for the innate nature of language. There are evidences to show that children reinvent language, not because they are asked to do so, but because they have to. Before going into the argument, it is important here to burst two myths about child language acquisition: 
    (1) The first myth is that children learn to speak from their parents (e.g. Motherese - dogggie, pappie, ...). This is not true because parents do not explicitly teach children the rules of the grammar. Chomsky reasoned that this argument of poverty of input is the primary justification for the saying that language is innate.
   (2) The second myth is that children learn to speak by imitating their parents. If this is true, then children should not be making any mistakes when their learn to talk. However children do make mistakes when they learn language (e.g. കാവളവണ്ടി, വെക്കള് )

Now it is time to look at two real-world cases where children reinvented language. One of them is the development of creole from pidgin languages such as pidgin English. Second one is the development of sign languages. In both these cases, phrases and crude sentences of a pseudo-language were converted to a bona fide language by the second generation of users i.e. the children of plantation workers and deaf children respectively.

Finally, another argument for the innate nature of language is that language is different from intelligence (or cognition). Those who suffer from Broca's aphasia are language-retarded. However they have sound cognitive skills. Those who suffer from chatterbox syndrome are language-savvy. However they have negligible cognitive skills. These two cases show that the ability to speak and the ability to, say, cook food are managed by different parts of the brain and hence different faculties.

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