The Language Instinct Book Summary - The Language Instinct Book explained in key points
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The Language Instinct summary

Steven Pinker

How the Mind Creates Language

4 (114 ratings)
23 mins

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The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker is a fascinating exploration of the innate human capacity to acquire language through evolution. We learn how language acquisition is hardwired into the brain and how grammar, syntax and vocabulary arise naturally in children.

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    The Language Instinct
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    We are all born with a language instinct.

    Think for a moment about how easy it is to turn the thoughts in your head into meaningful sentences. Where did this skill come from? While many people believe we learn grammar in the classroom, our knowledge of it precedes the moment we are born!

    Indeed, very young children have an innate understanding of grammatical structure that they couldn’t possibly have learned. The idea that grammatical rules are hardwired into the brain was first put forward by the famous linguist Noam Chomsky in his theory of Universal Grammar.

    According to Chomsky, children don’t learn how to speak from their parents or anyone else, but rather by using their innate grammar skill. As a consequence, Chomsky reasoned, all languages have the same basic underlying structure.

    One of Chomsky’s main arguments for this is the poverty of the stimulus, which demonstrates that children understand verb and noun structures they couldn’t have learned.

    For example, to turn the phrase “a unicorn is in the garden” into a question, you must simply move the “is” to the front of the sentence. However, for the phrase “a unicorn that is eating a flower is in the garden,” you have to rearrange more than just the first “is” to turn the phrase into a question. To make a grammatically sound sentence, you have to move the second “is.”

    Chomsky correctly claimed that children would never make the mistake of misapplying the first strategy for creating a question to the second, more complex sentence. In subsequent experiments, no children moved the wrong “is,” even with sentences they could have never heard before.

    Furthermore, deaf children use correct grammar in their signs without ever studying it.

    Psychologists studied a deaf boy named Simon, whose two deaf parents only learned sign language in adulthood, and thus made various grammatical mistakes.

    Simon, on the other hand, didn’t make the same mistakes, despite only ever being exposed to his parents’ style of signing. The only way to account for this is that Simon had an innate knowledge of grammar that precluded him from making his parents’ mistakes.

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    What is The Language Instinct about?

    The Language Instinct (1994) provides an in-depth look into the origins and intricacies of language, offering both a crash course in linguistics and linguistic anthropology along the way. By examining our knack for language, the book makes the case that the propensity for language learning is actually hardwired into our brains.

    The Language Instinct Review

    The Language Instinct (1994) explores the innate human ability for language and why we have it. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • The book unveils the fascinating science behind language acquisition, offering insights into how we effortlessly learn to speak and understand.
    • Backed by research and evidence, Steven Pinker takes readers on a journey to understand the underlying mechanisms of our linguistic abilities.
    • With a compelling blend of anecdotes, examples, and wit, the book keeps readers engaged and ensures that even complex concepts are easily comprehensible.

    Best quote from The Language Instinct

    The organisms we see around us are distant cousins, not great-grandparents.

    —Steven Pinker
    example alt text

    Who should read The Language Instinct?

    • Anyone interested in linguistics
    • People who want to know why Noam Chomsky is so famous
    • Anyone who has ever been taken aback by how quickly their children learned to speak

    About the Author

    Steven Pinker is an experimental psycholinguist as well as a professor of psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of six books, two of which, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate, were Pulitzer Prize finalists.

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    The Language Instinct FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Language Instinct?

    Understanding language as an innate human instinct.

    How long does it take to read The Language Instinct?

    Reading time varies, but Blinkist summary can be read in minutes.

    Is The Language Instinct a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Worth reading for insights on language and human nature.

    Who is the author of The Language Instinct?

    The author of The Language Instinct is Steven Pinker.

    What to read after The Language Instinct?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Language Instinct, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker
    • Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher
    • Fluent In 3 Months by Benny Lewis
    • How Language Works by David Crystal
    • Rationality by Steven Pinker
    • The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
    • The Little Book of Stoicism by Jonas Salzgeber
    • Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner
    • The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
    • The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene