March 29th, 2016


The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

Last time I wrote about spacebaby2 learning to talk randomdreams recommended that I read Steven Pinker's, "The Language Instinct". So I went to the library and picked it up and it's a 494 page academic journey through every exhausting DETAIL of how we learn language and I was like "DAMMIT livejournal friends are such a pain in the ass this is huge there is no way I'm reading this!"

But I took it home anyway and have to admit, it was awesome. Okay so I scanned some chapters. But most of the book I was pulled in and had to read every word because it's just so darn cool reading about how the brain works, how languages work, how magical it all is.

It's all about how unique humans are in our ability to learn, invent, reinvent language. And it is a REALLY cool read if you're around a toddler learning to talk. Grammar and language are these shrubs we've grown in complexity for tens of thousands of years, and our tiny brains dedicate a huge chunk to figuring it all out.

It's instinctive to communicate with each other however we can do it. Years ago deaf kids would be sent away to schools where the parents and teachers wanted them to learn to talk and read lips and that was IT. Instead since the kids were together all the time, they invented their own sign language. They needed flexible, complicated ways to communicate and lip reading wasn't going to do it for them. Sign language is an entire language in and of itself- with inflections and particular idiosyncracies. Years ago some researchers claimed they taught it to gorillas. People who were fluent in sign language disagreed. (So did lots of other researchers and whistleblowers on the studies... but for more info, read the book)

He calls three year olds "gramatical geniuses". In one section he writes down example sentences spoken by a toddler at 18 months through the kids third birthday, to demonstrate how the complexity of grammar is too fast for researchers to even keep up with, and it is amazing. He explains why it's so hard for computers to speak like us.

I had an earlier entry written up before I read the book, of a conversation we had about dinner guests, little almost-3yo Olive wondered why we weren't having friends over for dinner one night, she pointed outside and said

"Just knock them on the door!"

Which was hysterical to us but think about it... that sentence is gramatically correct, even if the words are a bit out of order, you get the idea. And that's all language needs to do, share our ideas.

And I started testing her while I was reading this book, about how their brains absorb weird little grammar rules like a sponge, we had this conversation:

Me: Olive what's that animal?
Her: It's a cat! A cat go, "meow meow meow!"
Me: That's right! The cat goes meow! What about a cow, how does the cow go?
Her: The cow goes MOOOOO.

According to the book, the little grammar "mistakes" toddlers make are mostly very logical... after all, why do we say "held" instead of "holded"? And why would the verb "go" in a question change to "goes" in the answer? So give the kids some credit! But they still absorb our subtle corrections... as Olive demonstrated, quickly.

Baby brains are learning machines, adult brains actually are not so good. Babies can tell the difference between languages that us adults would not be able to detect, our brains are wired for one thing, we've lost our ability to pick those up. The early years are crucial.

I loved his comparison to other animals. Our learning machine brains transform into reasoning/deduction machines. Nature also makes eating machines - caterpillars that turn into goo and emerge as breeding machines - butterflies.

He also talks about the dexterity of an elephant's trunk as being so amazing to us, but that's what elephants do, they evolved to have amazing trunks. We evolved to have amazing language-learning brains. Somewhere along the line good talkers were more likely to survive and more likely to create babies and that's how it works. Language is like our quirk. Humans have been around for 200,000 years or so, we split off about 100,000 years ago and spread around and made it to isolated islands all over the world and eventually rediscovered each other through exploration, and never found a mute tribe. We couldn't understand each other - but then again, it takes an expert to understand old english written just 1000 years ago. I was surprised to learn that it's unrecognizable compared to what we write today.

Two more takeaways from the book: first, he's very sad at the idea that we are losing languages. 300 years ago, a few thousand people could have a community and their own language and do just great. Now everybody moves around so much and there's so much technology, the big langauges rule out. The problem with that is that it's harder to study the interesting quirks that separate or thread through languages when you start whittling them down. If we spoke only english, we wouldn't know anything at all about how babies detect subtle language differences.

He's also very non-judgemental about diversity in speaking. So what if there's some style guide that says you can't end a sentence with a preposition? Who gets to be "right" and call other people stupid, or lazy? A society of lazy talkers would be made up of hard-working listeners, anyway... laziness all around doesn't work in communication. Let's sit back and accept changes and quit the snobbery of what's "proper" English, quit worrying about future generations butchering the language. It's an instinct. Ideas will not go away. Birds will not forget how to make nests.

So thanks, livejournal friends. I loved this book.