I am obviously a bit late in discovering the genius of Steven Pinker, by almost twenty years. But I could say much the same about how long it took me to discover Plato and Aristotle and Spinoza and Hume, as I was twenty years into adulthood before I discovered much about any of them. So I don’t much worry over whether or not I keep to the leading edge on things. In fact, I almost rather stay away from the leading edge, preferring to allow time a chance to distill and temper knowledge to its essence. So it is with these two books, and their author, Steven Pinker. I’m a couple of decades late, but not much of anything Pinker observes is any more or less right today than it was twenty years ago, and his insights have, to my knowledge, mostly been proved through the test of time.
Steven Pinker is a psycholinguist, which means that he uses language as the mental input and output for ascertaining how the mind works. There is a lot more than just language being thought by the brain, but language is the most readily accessible aspect of its activities, so has become to psychologists something as the fruit fly is to biologists—the investigative focus for unlocking its secrets.
The basic premise of the latter book, Words and Rules, is that the brain handles language in two ways. For one strategy, it constructs a rule, which operates something like a mathematical formula into which words can be inserted. If the rule’s logical operators function well, the correct word for the particular grammatical functions the mind is seeking to fulfill spits out on the other side of the formula. This seems to be the brain’s preferred strategy of using language for communication. Otherwise, the brain must memorize words and deploy them according to what is remembered of them. Pinker uses irregular and regular verbs to illustrate the two strategies. Irregular verbs cannot be conjugated according to any particular rule, so must be memorized. Regular verbs can, so do not have to be memorized (but as he says, there is a lot of squishiness in the actual operation, as some regular verbs are memorized, at least a few, until their rules of conjugation are deduced by some as yet undiscovered internal algorithm identifier [a grammar generator, to Noam Chomsky] in the brain).
The question of how the brain handles language is implicated in not only neuroscience, but also in epistemology, the study in philosophy of how knowledge is acquired. There are two main schools of thought concerning epistemology—the rationalists and the empiricists. The rationalists say the brain is formed and arrives in the world with some a priori sense of things. The brain knows two plus two equals four by dint of its design, even before it has consciously internalized or verbalized as much. The empiricists say the brain is a blank slate, a tabula rasa, that we are born knowing nothing, with the sensory inputs experienced in life providing all of our knowledge.
Pinker is closer to a rationalist than an empiricist. He believes there is neural architecture in humans that is specifically designed for the task of communicating via language—that the mind knows, a priori, because of its structure, something of the fundamentals of language, particularly its rules of grammar, which it will learn and use in communication. Pinker is not quite a Chomskyite—he never specifically claims that there is a deep, universal grammar undergirding all languages—but believes that language acquisition and use is a product of an innate and uniquely human design. Language is not only learned, but the brain is primed to its acquisition by its design.
This makes sense, but perhaps gets the cart before the horse, implying that neural architecture evolved to specifically support language acquisition. It is just as conceivable that the neural architecture supporting language acquisition, which has not been conclusively and specifically identified, is a spandrel, a flourish that arose from the purposeful selection of other attributes necessary for survival in a time before man had language (if there is a time before man had language—there is the possibility that language is mankind’s seminal attribute—that before language, man in his present form did not exist).
But I think the whole empiricist/rationalist debate is overwrought. The mind has a particular design, determined by its genes and its genes alone, which are inherited from its forbears. When a baby is born, its brain, whose architecture was predetermined by its genes, has had very little sensory input. As soon as the body in which it is encased traverses the birth canal, all that immediately changes. It is bombarded with sensory inputs. Its blank slate is furiously (and at first, probably incoherently) scribbled upon. But the architecture with which the brain is born is necessary to the brain making any sense whatsoever of the sensory inputs with which it is being bombarded. And the manner with which it makes sense of the world is uniquely human. The color red, even before it is learned to be called ‘red’, or whatever it is called in the language of the baby’s caregivers, imprints a unique image in the mind’s eye of what being red is about (provided the mind is normally functioning). In physical science, what we call the color red occupies a particular wavelength of the visible light spectrum, but the image of red the brain presents to us may or not be the same image of red the brain of, for example, an octopus, presents to its consciousness when it encounters light of a wavelength corresponding to what we call red.
If the mind is a tabula rasa, a blank slate, it is not a passive slate, like a blackboard (which leaves the metaphor desiring much, as the expression refers to what essentially was, in ancient times, a blackboard), upon which the various senses indiscriminately write. Experience writes on the blackboard of the mind, but the mind guides the chalk as it does so. The mind creates the world for us. In doing so, it gathers sensory inputs and filters them through neural architecture that is keenly attuned to teasing out logical relationships, to relentlessly categorizing and cataloging its every input, and to performing cause and effect analyses. But while all that goes on, the brain only tells the conscious mind what it thinks it needs, in the premises, to know, in order to enhance the body’s capacity to survive. The mind is no blank slate, but without experiential input, the rationalist mind would have no raw material with which to work.
The strongest evidence that a rationalist perspective is closer to true regarding the acquisition of language is the combinatorial grammars children learn without really trying, which allows them to take a fixed set of inputs (words) and rules and create of them an infinite capacity to form and communicate ideas. The logic of language must be intimately related to innate neural architecture, or the ability to readily learn, internalize and apply rules of grammar–no matter the child, no matter the particular language–would not be feasible. If there were a haphazardly constructed grammar generator, different for each person, surely language would impede as much as enhance the communicative impulse.
The strongest evidence of an empirical foundation for language is the impossibility of teaching feral children, i.e., children who have been raised without language, fluency in language after a certain age (six to twelve, perhaps, though so few exist as to make the evidence inconclusive except as to the impossibility of training a feral child to fluency in a language). If humans aren’t exposed to language as children, the parts of the developing brain devoted to it atrophy with respect to the ability, apparently never to be again energized. This is quite remarkable.
Thus what we have is an example of the nature vs nurture paradox that perfectly illustrates the essence of its false dichotomy. The mind must have a nature designed for language acquisition, particularly grammar acquisition (let me remark here that when I say “grammar” I mean it in a linguistic sense, i.e., the mechanisms through which words are formed and then combined into sensible sentences, sentences into paragraphs, etc.—not the rules that grammar Nazis like to bop your ears with when words are misused or sentences mal-constructed). The mind is born fit to receive, and it could be imagined, desperately desiring, a language. But if it doesn’t receive a language during its first few precious years, if its nature isn’t nurtured during a critical time period of its development, the ability is lost forever. After it passes the nurturing point without learning a language, the nature allowing it to do so disappears, and the feral child becomes not much more capable of learning human language than a chimpanzee. It takes both—nature and nurture to learn a language and become a fully formed and functioning human being. Thus is the falseness of the dichotomy revealed, and the debate resolved. Language truly is as useful to psycholinguists, neuroscientists, epistemologists—and me– as fruit flies are to biologists.
In The Language Instinct, Pinker forcefully makes the claim that language is as much a part of human biology as a spleen, that it…
“…is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture. It is not a manifestation of a general capacity to use symbols: a three-year-old, we shall see, is a grammatical genius, but is quite incompetent at the visual arts, religious iconography, traffic signs, and other staples of the semiotics curriculum. Though language is a magnificent ability unique to Homo sapiens among living species, it does not call for sequestering the study of humans from the domain of biology, for a magnificent ability unique to a particular living species is far from unique in the animal kingdom…In nature’s talent show we are simply a species of primate with our own act, a knack for communicating information about who did what to whom by modulating the sounds we make when we exhale.”
But there is a critical difference between, for instance, an elephant’s trunk and the human capacity for language. An elephant’s trunk needs no nurturing to grow. It grows according to instructions contained in the genetic code carried by elephants. The same could perhaps be said of the neural architecture devoted to speech in the human brain, but the architecture atrophies to near uselessness if it is not activated at an appropriate age. Perhaps something similar would happen to an elephant’s trunk if the elephant failed to make use of the trunk along its way to maturity, creating the spectacle of elephants that are incapable of picking up peanuts or squirting water through their trunks. An elephant’s trunk, much like a human’s brain, is ingeniously adept at solving existential elephant problems, no matter their origin or context. Would it retain the capacity were its use somehow completely prohibited to the elephant during its development? We know that birds, which are born flightless, do not require nurturing to learn how to fly. All that is required is the maturation of the implements used for flight—birds that aren’t allowed to flap their wings until maturity fly out of the nest without any training once their wings are mature and freed. But humans whose language instinct is not primed by experiencing language mostly lose the capacity to later on learn it. To language we are born, but to use it we must be bred (in the somewhat archaic sense of bred as meaning “to rear or train”).
Perhaps the language instinct is something akin to the suckling instinct, a set of preprogrammed responses to certain stimuli that while not exactly necessary to the survival of a child, have been tempered in the crucible of natural selection somewhere in the mammalian distant past to immensely contribute to the child’s prospects for survival. I know of no experiments in which human babies were denied nipples, artificial or real (or their fingers), during some critical, very early stage of development to see whether the suckling instinct is like the language instinct—lost unless given the capacity to flourish through nurture. And it may well be that the neural architecture for suckling, common to all mammals, is wired more in the manner of a physiological function, like breathing, than is the higher order function of language. But it would be interesting to see. And if experiments showed that preserving the instinct requires some measure of nurturing, it would provide more evidence that the nature vs nurture debate is overwrought and misplaced.
This, I know, is not much of a review of either book. I was more interested here in setting out what I had learned through the two books, and applying it to understandings I had previously formulated. I came to the exercise in the context of trying to learn how humans learn language, as in my spare time, I have taken up teaching English to adults who are learning it as a second language. I wanted to know something of the psycholinguist’s insight into the learning of language. And the books have been immensely valuable in that regard, particularly in the aspect of how the mind handles language learning through a bifurcated process of words and rules, where learning a bit of each is necessary to gaining fluency. It is quite remarkable to consider that babies can do it all through simple exposure. The trick to learning a second language, it seems, is to reconfigure the mind to mimic that of a young child, but to apply the vastly greater capacities of an adult for memorization and understanding to make the task go more quickly. Babies take about five years to really become fluent in English conversation, and much longer than that to become literate. The trick for an adult learner is to learn like a baby but more quickly, using the tools of an adult, fully formed brain.
Words and Rules is tantamount to a first-year textbook of psycholinguistics. The Language Instinct explains the biological mechanism of language acquisition as if it were a genetically modulated attribute like any other. Taken together, the books provide an excellent foundation for investigating the mysteries of human language and what we have thus far discovered. Steven Pinker is a brilliant and persuasive and readily accessible writer. Though each book is nearly two decades old, they are hardly outdated. I highly recommend them.