The Language Within Us

February 27, 1994
By Michael D. Coe;

By Steven Pinker.
Illustrated. 494 pp.
New York: William Morrow & Company. $23.

WHEN I was a graduate student in anthropology in the 1950's, the word from on high was that the human infant was an unformed lump of clay that eventually, through the process of education by its elders and betters, would receive its language, its culture and even its sexual identity. We were told that by means of language and culture, humans had left behind the biological imperatives that enchained the rest of the animal world: culture was "superorganic."

Then along came Noam Chomsky, the iconoclastic linguist and short-fused political gadfly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Starting in 1957, he proclaimed a new doctrine: Language, that most human of all attributes, was innate. The grammatical faculty was built into the infant brain, and your average 3-year-old was not a mere apprentice in the great enterprise of absorbing English from his or her parents, but a "linguistic genius." Since this message was couched in terms of Chomskyan theoretical linguistics, in discourse so opaque that it was nearly incomprehensible even to some scholars, many people did not hear it.

Now, in a brilliant, witty and altogether satisfying book, Mr. Chomsky's colleague Steven Pinker, the director of M.I.T.'s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, has brought Mr. Chomsky's findings to everyman. In "The Language Instinct" he has gathered persuasive data from such diverse fields as cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology and speech therapy to make his points, and when he disagrees with Mr. Chomsky he tells you so. Mr. Pinker has that facility, so rare among scientists, of making the most difficult material -- and some of Mr. Chomsky's work on English grammar is truly tough going -- accessible to the average reader. Most important, he never talks down to his reader.

What Mr. Chomsky discovered was that most of the logic underlying all of the world's languages is wired into children's brains. As Mr. Pinker puts it, "Let us do away with the folklore that parents teach their children language. . . . Children deserve most of the credit for the language they acquire." "Motherese," the kind of talk that parents use when trying to instill a particular language into their small offspring, has very little to do with the process, he says, for children are quite able to produce far more complex and correct grammatical transformations than they find in Motherese. For example, a developmental psychologist has shown in an experiment with children that they will call "a monster who likes to eat mice" a "mice-eater," but they will never call "a monster who likes to eat rats" a "rats-eater," only a "rat-eater." And underlying this distinction is a very subtle rule for combining plurals and compounds.

For Mr. Chomsky and Mr. Pinker, somewhere in the human brain there is a complex set of neural circuits that have been programmed with "super-rules" (making up what Mr. Chomsky calls "universal grammar"), and that these rules are unconscious and instinctive. A half-century ago, this would have been pooh-poohed as a "black box" theory, since one could not actually pinpoint this grammatical faculty in a specific part of the brain, or describe its functioning. But now things are different. Neurosurgeons can electrically stimulate points on the brain while the patient is conscious; and there is powerful diagnostic machinery, like magnetic resonance imaging, that can show how different parts of the brain work during speech production and comprehension. That "black box" is situated in and around Broca's area, on the left side of the forebrain.

IT seems that the unborn fetus must already react to language, for experiments with 4-day-old French infants show that they suck much harder while hearing French than while hearing Russian. In the prenatal state, humans apparently react instinctively to the melody, stress and timing of the mother's native speech. But these inborn linguistic mechanisms really take off at about 18 months after birth, and they are fully operating at about 3 years, when even the errors a child commits follow precise grammatical rules. By puberty, the faculty for language acquisition has deteriorated, which is why tourists and students have such a hard time learning a foreign tongue -- and why, as Mr. Pinker says, Henry Kissinger speaks with a Dr. Strangelove accent and his younger brother does not. Our brains slough this ability away as a butterfly sheds its pupal skin. Unlike Mr. Chomsky, Mr. Pinker firmly places the wiring of the brain for language within the framework of Darwinian natural selection and evolution. He effectively disposes of all claims that intelligent nonhuman primates like chimps have any abilities to learn and use language. It is not that chimps lack the vocal apparatus to speak; it is just that their brains are unable to produce or use grammar.

On the other hand, the "language instinct," when it first appeared among our most distant hominid ancestors, must have given them a selective reproductive advantage over their competitors (including the ancestral chimps). Mr. Pinker surmises that the language might have appeared early in the human record, perhaps even 2 million to 2.5 million years ago with the tool-producing Homo habilis. And he remains unimpressed with the claim by anatomists that only modern Homo sapiens has the proper larynx to generate intelligible speech.

So according to Mr. Pinker, the roots of language must be in the genes, but there cannot be a "grammar gene" any more than there can be a gene for the heart or any other complex body structure. This proposition will undoubtedly raise the hackles of some behavioral psychologists and anthropologists, for it apparently contradicts the liberal idea that human behavior may be changed for the better by improvements in culture and environment, and it might seem to invite the twin bugaboos of biological determinism and racism. Yet Mr. Pinker stresses one point that should allay such fears. Even though there are 4,000 to 6,000 languages today, they are all sufficiently alike to be considered one language by an extraterrestrial observer. In other words, most of the diversity of the world's cultures, so beloved to anthropologists, is superficial and minor compared to the similarities. Racial differences are literally only "skin deep." The fundamental unity of humanity is the theme of Mr. Chomsky's universal grammar, and of this exciting book.



Although Steven Pinker has yet to persuade many of his fellow linguists of his theories, he decided to write "The Language Instinct" for lay readers, particularly the sorts of people he meets in bars. "When they ask me what I do for a living and I say that I study language, they usually ask me why the hockey team from Toronto is called the Maple Leafs instead of the Maple Leaves," he explained in a recent telephone interview from his home in Cambridge, Mass.

Hockey fans aside, he feels cognitive scientists haven't reached out to the public. "Too many of the discoveries are couched in impenetrable jargon," the 39-year-old author said. "This has left a vacuum that has been filled by amateurs -- mavens and pundits -- with a lay person's insight and lots of folklore and superstition and a lack of knowledge of the basic tools to study language."

Mr. Pinker predicted that his criticisms of style manuals will be misunderstood as arguing that grammar shouldn't be taught. Rather, he said, he only wants to remind educators that they "are not teaching grammar to kids who do not have it, but are teaching a standard grammar to kids who have a different grammar."

Nor does he think copy editors should lose their jobs, so long as they "remember that the style rules did not come down from Mount Sinai -- we can challenge them, get rid of those that are silly and recognize that it is inevitable that language is going to change." Of course, he said, "It makes sense to have a standard in the same way that it makes sense for everyone to drive on the right-hand side of the road. But it's different from saying that the right side is the only true and justifiable side to drive on."


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