"The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker

Review by Borodutch

"The Language Instinct" was recommended by the professor from the psychology course I took and by Richard Dawkins in "The Blind Watchmaker." Interestingly enough, Pinkers cross-references Richard's work in his book as well. Overall, the author is trying to argue that humans have an innate urge and skill to learn languages that they are born with. Steven makes the following points:

  1. Children don't "learn" grammar and language but "absorb" it
  2. All languages have common blocks that they are built of
  3. Grammar rules don't mean much as long as the speaker is easy to understand

Even though the book's first half was exciting, the latter one was extremely dull to me. Don't get me wrong, I come from a linguistics school, and I've seen people so fascinated by the rules and intricacies of the language. However, I'm not one of these — and I couldn't fully appreciate the dry reiteration of all the rules, exceptions and examples.

However, I did find two concepts peculiar:

  1. Pinker wrote the book in 1994 and 2011, well before GPT4 — so his perspective on how LLMs wouldn't be of any use is interesting (especially taking into account that it turned out to be utterly wrong)
  2. I haven't paid too much attention to pidgins and creoles before — however, now, going deeper into cognitive sciences, it seems like I'm going to research more on these concepts

Was this book worth my time? Certainly! And I'd recommend this book over almost any non-fiction every day of the week. So go read it. You won't be disappointed!