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on 6 January 2000
This book is certainly well-written and very stimulating, but readers new to the subject should be aware that it is highly polemical, and not at all a neutral dispassionate introduction to the field. The book is written from a strongly Chomskyan perspective - indeed the constant worshipful references to the Great Man become tedious after a while, and the many shortcomings of Chomsky's Transformational/Generative Grammar theory are not mentioned. It is one thing to argue - as Pinker does, convincingly - that human beings are born with an innate ability to deduce the grammatical rules of any language from a limited input. It is another to claim that there exists a Universal Grammar which applies to any language (this is not proven in the book), and it is another still to claim that Chomsky's grammar (which hardly works for English let alone any other language) is that Universal Grammar. The book contains some basic linguistic mistakes, which make one question the real expertise of the author (who is a cognitive psychologist, not a linguist). Just one example: to claim (p127) that in an agglutinative language eight morphemes can be combined in half a million different ways is ridiculous, supposing as it does that they can be combined in any order (in fact each morpheme has to go into a particular "slot" in the word). Nevertheless, a stimulating read - inspiring on one page, infuriating on the next. But please don't take it as Holy Writ (especially the Chomskyan bits).
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VINE VOICEon 2 October 2005
Addressing as it does issues of cognition, language usage and acquisition, evolutionary biology and innate versus learned behaviour, this work is relevant to many of the great intellectual debates of our time. It is very readable for the most part, although if some of the topics are new to you then you will find a few sections rather heavy going. More illustrations would have helped here. There are syntax structure diagrams and one very grudging, cursory sketch of the language centers of the brain, but many sections cry out for a diagram among all the verbiage.
Pinker's lively, humorous style is often commented on but I sometimes found it wearing. He will illustrate a point with an amusing newspaper cutting, then list a few more, then add "I could not resist some more..." and so on. I sometimes wished he would just get on with it.
A major problem with his nativist approach is that many examples he lists of usages that English speakers would never employ are nothing of the kind. Most of them are conceivable and since the first publication of this book, linguists have been busy recording them in the field. The thesis also becomes somewhat unravelled in the penultimate chapter, where he argues that 'you and I' and 'you and me' are equally correct in all circumstances, because 'the pronoun is free to have any case it wants'. But if this is so then what has become of the innate awareness of correct usage that the whole theory is about? If 'between you and I' sounds instinctively wrong to me and 'between you and me' sounds instinctively wrong to someone else, does that mean one of us has a mutant grammar gene? I doubt it.
The title itself is problematic. 'Instinct' is not a word much in favour among biologists nowadays and whatever language is, it is certainly not instinctive in the traditional sense. Early in the book, Pinker admits as much, but determines to use the word anyway, a use that owes more to marketing than to science.
Still, this is probably the best introductory linguistics text currently available. If you are new to linguistics, start here rather than with Chomsky, but please go on to read Geoffrey Sampson's work, perhaps starting with his website, to get an alternative view. As with most academic disputes, the answer no doubt lies somewhere in the middle. Since Chomsky's early work, the nativists have toned down their claims considerably, while their opponents have made concessions. On page 34 of this book, Pinker says, "No one has yet located a language organ or a grammar gene, but the search is on." More than a decade later, the search is still on. Good luck with that.
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on 6 January 2009
Pinker really goes all the way in this, bathing the reader in wonderful language, interesting ideas and good old fun and games. But the sad part is that his premise and conclusion--that language is an instinct--is a total and complete non sequitur.

Being a fan of Chomsky, Pinker submits to the notion (and a notion it is) that language and communication aren't necessarily related (as Chomsky (1975) said, "communication is only one function of language, and by no means an essential one"). Although Chomsky in recent years has done a lot to moderate his position, and a lot of research at least suggest that the world has come out of the post-skinnerian, anti-"blank slate" state in which it was in the seventies, when Chomsky reigned, Pinker upholds the sharp divide between grammar and usage. Why?

Because The Language Instinct isn't really about language. It's about completing Pinker's reductionist trilogy, consisting of this one, The Blank Slate, and How the Mind works. In The Language Instinct, Pinker doesn't analyze the facts and draws a valid conclusion. He simply tells us how convenient to his worldview it would be if language really was an instinct. I believe that makes The Language Instinct theology (or at best, philosophy) and not science.

Still, this book is a fine introduction to chomskyan grammar, X-bars and the like. Plus it's fun. But scientifically, it lacks stringency, humility and honesty. The book is filled with thin case studies that could mean the "instinct hypothesis" is correct or wrong, depending on your interpretation (of course Pinker chooses "correct"), and quote mining (the worst example being one in which Pinker gets the one name he's quoting wrong--twice!--plus, the book he's quoting is really about something else than what Pinker claims. The book in question is Heath (1983), Ways With Words.)

So, this book doesn't really tell us much about language, nor about language acquisition. What it does, however, is to educate us in Pinker's worldview, luckily for us in an entertaining manner. But need you learn of language, you must turn to someone who understands communication. Check out Pinker for laughs and a quick read, but if you want to learn something, I suggest Michael Tomasello, Jerome Bruner or Albert Bandura. They have what Pinker lack: an understanding of how complex human communication really is.
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on 2 February 2004
This is the first book I have read on the subject of psycholinguistics. It was surprisingly easy to understand and very enlightening. It must have made an impression on me because I've just had an 'animated' discussion with my brother about the silliness of the English grammar rule against splitting infinitives - and I think I won. Before reading the book I didn't care whether the crew of the Enterprise 'boldly went' or 'went boldly', but now I'd prefer them 'to boldly go'.
I note an earlier reviewer's warning that Pinker presents his own view and that there are others that differ. That's worth knowing when you are as unfamiliar with the subject as I am. Even if he slipped in a few controversial ideas though, I'm sure that I've learned a score of interesting things and, just as importantly (after all, I'm not a student or a teacher), I was very adequately entertained.
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on 6 August 2001
The Language Instinct-Steven Pinker
WOW! This was a fantastic book. Pinker is a fantastic writer who really makes the subject of language acquisition interesting. This is a MUST read for anyone who has the slightest interest in learning or teaching languages. Pinker takes the reader through different ideas of language theory and points out the strengths and weaknesses of these ideas. His explanations are clear, lucid and logical.
If you do buy this book you will find a lot of interesting topics for conversation. I teach English in Germany and this book gave me lots of food for thought. After every chapter I wanted to call up my teacher friends and talk about different ideas and theories. I often use his examples to explain things to my students (and understand things for myself). After reading this book, my job became interesting again, and how many books can do that for you?
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on 10 March 2003
Pinker is an entertaining and engaging writer and this is by far his best work. His style is relaxed, comic and he has an ability to pluck a salient example from the ether to prove whatever point he is currently making. This is a great introduction to linguistics in general an the 'language instinct' debate in particular, but the problem is: I can't find the bit of this book that shows how and why the language instinct exists. Pinker entertains and educates throughout this book without managing to prove his central thesis: That language is innate. By the final chapter I was truly convinced that I had missed a whole section, because, inamongst the quips and puns, I simply cannot find any relevant argument. Pinker could easily have written the same book and called it 'The lack of a language instinct'.
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on 19 January 2015
This proved to be an unsuspectingly vast book that had me from its premise of language being an instinct than an acculturated, learned trait: an idea more pervasive in the post-behaviorist world that surrounds us today. I am surprised at how new this book's arguments sound considering this is the twenty first year since its publication and the nature vs nurture debate still continue unabated ravaging intellectual pillars with fire and counter-fire. Clearly the think-tank on the other side of the fence has found more takers in the publishing and media world.

After dismantling many of the presumptions of and around "learning" language, I was then enticed by the patient anatomical dissection of language. Seeing words dismantled into syllables and phonemes, sentences into phrases prefixed with verbs, nouns and the vagaries of syntax: all this was my first sail into the great ocean of linguistics and I was glad to have Mr Pinker handling the ropes.

Being bilingual and a casual translator, I am now more able to describe the triple struggle of taking philosophical leaps (easy!), syntatical leaps (difficult) and philological leaps (impossible!) while translating that drains much beauty, wit and intended poetry of the parent language. I am grateful to Pinker for quenching my curiosity about the hidden semantic world of thinking about components of language and grammar. It was also a special delight to see him aligning these with the components of genetics using examples of families with dyslexia and specific language impairment. I was also impressed by his leap into evolutionary psychology where he posits the faculty of language to be an analogous (not homologous!) trait exclusive to humans as evidence corroborating evolution and spends many a page sniggering at the experiments involving adopted chimpanzees being hectored to communicate in sign language.

Before his ultimate essay on the existence of Universal Grammar and Universal People, there is a detour to take the cause of grammar pedants, and while this goes too long despite my shared exasperation with the author, I found myself mostly convinced by his evolution and neuroscience centered arguments for existence of language in all its complexity. Part of the charm is that by using biology in his explanatory models, he brings the world with all its languages and tongues, on one level-playing field and debunks many inter- and intra-cultural myths, legends, biases and prescriptions.

The book is not without his flaws: concepts sometimes overstay their welcome by ten pages too many, and the crowd of interlocking, entwined semi-theses, suppositions and research summaries on language usage and language instinct don't always gel into a cohesive whole. But Pinker writes with vigour, is a man of many ideas and as an introduction to his prolific later works where he expands on many of his theories, the Language Instinct is a good place to start.
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on 22 March 2009
Pinker has something interesting things to say on the subject, but forgets to say the the 'language instinct' (Chomsky's 'universal grammar') is not accepted as correct by a great number of linguists. When this is a book written for laypeople this is a dangerous oversimplification. Since this book was published, evidence for this point of view has dwindled and evidence for the other side (basically, culture affecting what we say/what we can say/how we say it etc) has grown. I recommend Daniel Everett's Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle for a highly entertaining, down to earth and accessible analysis of just one language which proves Chomsky, Pinker et al wrong in so many ways.
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on 17 October 2000
This is a book written by an expert for non-experts and experts alike. Entertaining, informative and funny, it really makes you think about why we humans speak and how we use language. Despite a couple of linguisticky (!) explanations, you won't get bogged down in jargon. A must for all lovers of language.
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on 1 April 1998
I'm reading The Language Instinct for a linguistics course. This is really interesting stuff and very readable. I've learned some very interesting theories about how people learn languages, much more plausible than the "we copy our parents" theory I was raised on.
But there's a lot more than just how we learn language. This is about how we are constantly re-creating language, and although the ideas are expressed in English, they apply to every spoken language.

Read it!
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