Language: Instinctive or Learned?
Over the course of time the topic of language has been a catalyst for many discussions and debates as to if it is learned throughout one’s life, or is it a hard copy instinct the one is born with. Many scientists and writers in the humanities field have their own opinions as to what they believe about language and its plight in human society. One writer challenges many of our educators and scholars today by expressing his thoughts on the instinct to understand, learn, and speak language.
In The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, Steven Pinker maintains that language is not something that we learn like the way we learn how to tell time or learn about the presidents. Rather, Pinker suggests that the essence of language is already with us when we are brought into the world. You see this when Pinker argues, “Instead, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brain”(4). He uses metaphors and similes to further qualify his arguments. Pinker compares the idea that people know how to talk in the same sense that spiders know how to spin webs. The activity or practice of spinning webs was not invented by any one spider, but rather is an instinctive quality that spiders have much like humans and language. Pinker goes on to comment that a young child’s knowledge of language and grammar is more refined than any artificial language system used by any advanced technology computer aided programs.
Pinker’s views that he establishes about language are in accordance with other notable figures in the humanities field. A man by the name of Noam Chomsky has views that are representative of the point Pinker is trying to convey: language is a biological makeup of the brain. As a professor of linguistics at MIT, Chomsky imparted sound arguments as to the nature of language. Chomsky has suggested the fact that every sentence that a human speaks or comprehends is an original combination of words that has not been voiced before. Therefore, language is not a learned trait that has an extensive gamut of expressions, but rather the brain must contain a “hard drive” that can fabricate an unlimited set of sentences from a limited amount of words. He also strongly feels that children are inherently equipped with the ability to cull the syntactic patterns of speech from their parents. We can see this when a young infant begins to babble at the youngest of ages. This furthermore qualifies and represents Pinker’s views on the idea that language is instinctive.
On the other side of the coin, there are those educated people that have different views and opinions about language than Pinker suggests, most of these being elementary and secondary English and grammar teachers. It is their obligation to teach young children and adolescence the proper syntax structure, pronunciation, and spelling of words. So it is only the nature of their profession for these teachers to firmly believe that language, of course, is a learned capacity. Just the way they learn that 2+2=4 and George Washington was the first President of the United States. But Pinker is trying to convince the ignorant that these opinions are wrong and language is not math problem or a history fact that we learn, but a rather an instinctive knowledge.
The different views and opinions of the nature language will be discussed for time to come. Can there be some duality to language? Can it be both instinctive and learned, or does it have to be one or the other? It will be interesting to see if these questions can be answered. Maybe then will we see what is the origin of language. Personally, I still do not surely or firmly have a view or a belief to this topic, but I am leaning a certain way. So I leave you with a quote from Oscar Wilde that I read which also appears in Pinker’s book. Oscar Wilde comments, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.”
Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language: Harper-Collins.
New York, 1994.
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