The Language Instinct


A friend, a diplomat’s daughter, when asked how she had managed to master Dutch when she went to a school in Suriname, shrugged. “I don’t know. I remember being so confused during the first day, not understanding a single word. But not so long after that, I was able to speak in Dutch. I just spoke, I don’t know how.”

That had happened years ago, when she was still very young. We have always wondered how come children are able to learn language easily, while many, if not most adults, find the task of learning a new language bewildering, bordering to the impossible. Plus, children are not just great imitators. If they were, we would only be repeating things our parents had told us when we were small. But we don’t. We don’t just mimic our parents’ words. Something in our neural circuitry does more than just copying; it analyses grammar, it finds for pattern, it composes new combination of words… frighteningly complex processes that, so far, cannot even be matched by the most advanced of AI. C3PO is still a long way to go.

The ability of learning language is one of the many subjects covered by the book The Language Instinct, written by Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist in Harvard. (No, he’s not some crazy linguist who enjoys slaying people.)

Language is probably the hallmark of human race. We boast our ability to communicate in words, a feature of our culture that no other living forms have. But Pinker shows us that far from being a cultural invention, language is actually an instinct. And because it is, then despite the doubts of the likes of Chomsky, it must be built gradually in the lineages one of which led to us thanks to natural selection. Aiming towards the goal of convincing us about that main point of language being an instinct, Pinker wove an abundance of evidence into this clear, comprehensible book, though admittably at times I was lost among a wealth of linguistic terms that I had to crawl through, trying to just grab the general point of some parts.

Nevertheless, I like Pinker’s book for dissecting language thoroughly. My favourite part is of course about the language mavens – people who think they have the task to safeguard the purity of language and grammar. Pinker showed us that many instances of ‘ungrammatical’ words or sentences according to those mavens, are actually grammatical according to how our brain works. Very enlightening, especially for someone like me who has for quite some time lost her faith in the tyranny of KBBI and EYD of the Indonesian language. (Our own language mavens, for instance, would waste their sweat telling us that the correct spelling for ‘lembab’ is ‘lembap’, though you understand that both mean the same anyway, and that you may not speak of ‘jam delapan’, but ‘pukul delapan’ instead.)

But hey, if this sounds like telling us to ditch our dictionaries and standard spellings and pronunciation altogether, what am I doing, writing something in what, I hope, is a neat piece of review, instead 0f sumth1n l1k3 d33s? (You might even notice that I even care to hit the spacebar twice after a period, but only once after a comma.)

Well, when I talk with my sister and brother, or with my bestfriends, sometimes we use words and phrases only we understand. (I wager none of you know what an ‘exedol’ is.) Sometimes we don’t even have to finish our sentences. Our experience together has created specific words and phrases and shaped the language that we use when we communicate with each other. But, when I write something, keeping a general reader in mind, I must be careful to use words and phrases most, if not all, readers would understand, presenting my thought clearly, preventing misunderstanding or confusion (except if that is exactly my intention, but Joyce I am not). Hence my writing style – but trust me, in verbal communication, I might sound very, very different.

Language is far more interesting than filling up blanks on a question sheet with the right form of verbs, and Steven Pinker has a way of revealing to us how amazing our language and our brain are.

PS: More language & linguistic books are also available at C2O.

Title : The Language Instinct

Author : Steven Pinker
Publisher : Penguin, 1994
Call No. : 400 PINK

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Teacher, writer, translator, so-called artist, trained in genetics, microbiology, and conservation biology. A member of HPI. Visit her goodreads to see what she's reading.

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