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The Language Instinct (Steven Pinker)

Chapter 1: An instinct to acquire an art There is a basic instinct to learn, speak, and understand a language. Cognitive sciences combine tools from psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy and neurobiology to explain the workings of human intelligence. Lg is not a cultural artefact that we learn, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, an is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. Lg is biological adaptation to communicate. Oscar Wilde: education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. The conception of lg as an instinct was articulated by Darwin. Writing is not an instinct. No philologist supposes that any lg has been deliberately invented. Every sentence that a person utters/ understands is a brandnew combination of words: lg is not a repertoire process. Children develop complex grammar rapidly without formal instruction.

Chapter 9: Baby Born Talking- Describes Heaven All infants come to the world with linguistic skills. Some infants enter the world with some knowledge of their mothers lg: French babies suck harder when they listen to French rather than Russian. They must have learnt something about the prosody in the womb. A newborn has a vocal tract like a nonhuman mammal. The larynx comes up like a periscope and engages the nasal passage, forcing the infant to breathe through the nose and making it possible to drink and breathe at the same time. By 3 months the larynx has descended, opening the pharynx. This allows the tongue to move forwards and backwards and produce a variety of sounds used by adults. Between five and seven months babies begin to play with sounds used by adults. Between seven and eight months they suddenly begin to babble in real syllables. Deaf children babbling is later and simpler, though if exposed to sign language, they babble on schedule with hands. By then months they are no longer universal phoneticians but have turned into their parents. Before 1 year babies can understand some words, and they start to produce them, usually in isolation. Around 18 months language takes off and syntax begins. Between the 2nd and 3rd year childrens lg blooms into fluent grammatical conversation. Sentences are not longer but more complex. They obey rules. All lgs are acquired, with equal ease, before the child turns four. Though speech input is necessary for speech development, a mere soundtrack is not enough. Deaf parents of hearing kids were advised to have the children watch a lot of tv. They didnt learn English. Soundtracks are not in motherese. Parents speak slower, more exaggerated in pitch, more directed to the here and now and more grammatical. Children have to figure out how far to leap in the particular language being acquired. They start with the smallest hypothesis and prove it. The child must couch rules in grammatical categories like noun, verb and auxiliary, not in actual words. The child looks for phrases. Infants may be expelled from the womb before their brains are complete. The brain continues to increase rapidly in the year after birth.

Lg seems to develop as quickly as the growing brain can handle it. Talented and motivated individuals master the grammar of a foreign language, but not its sound pattern. Case: wolf-children found at the age of 13 was able to produce simple sentences, but never the full grammar of the lg. Case: Chelsea was born deaf, but diagnosed as retarded. At the age of 31 she was referred to a neurologist, who fitted her with hearing aids. Chelseas syntax is bizarre. Acquisition of a normal language is guaranteed for children up to the age of 6, compromised from then until shortly after puberty and is rare thereafter. The critical period for lg acquisition might have evolved as a part of a larger fact of life. Chapter 10: Language Organs and Grammar Genes Genetic biologists have identified the grammar gene. A single gene is thought to disrupt grammar, but that does not mean a single gene controls grammar. What is disrupted is the ability to converse normally everyday English, not the ability to learn the standard written dialect in school. If there is a lg instinct, it has to be embodied somewhere in the brain, and those brain circuits must have been prepared for their role by the genes that build them. Broca discovered a large cyst producing a lesion in Tans (named after the only syllable he could produce) left hemisphere. The next eight cases of aphasia he observed also had left-hemisphere lesions. When different words are presented simultaneously to the two years, the person can make out the word coming into the right ear better. When neuroscientists look directly at the brain, they can actually see language in action in the left hemisphere. A patient with a sleeping right hemisphere can talk, a patient with a sleeping left hemisphere cannot. The left hemisphere is engaging abstract language. It is what controls lg. The crucial lifestyle feature is mobility: the species with bilaterally symmetrical body plans are the ones that are designed to move in straight lines. No biologist has explained why the left brain controls right space and vice versa. The only speculation was formulated by Kinsbourne: changes in the genetic instructions for building the creature resulted in the half-twist during embryonic development. Human lg may have been concentrated in one hemisphere because it is coordinated in time but not environmental space.

Brocas are seems to be implicated in grammatical processing in general. The perisylvian cortex (where Brocas are is found, is involved in grammatical processing. This region lights up when people listen to speech in a language they know, tell stories, or understand complex sentences. Brocas area is not really the grammar organ: some kinds of grammatical abilities seem to survive damage to this area. The role of Brocas area in lg is maddeningly unclear. Wernickes area is also important. When damaged, patients utter fluent streams fo more-or-less grammatical phrases, but their speech makes no sense and is filled with neologisms and word substitutions. Wernickes area, together with the two shaded areas adjacent to it in the diagram sit at the cross-roads of three lobes of the brain, and hence are ideally suited to integrating streams of information about visual shapes, sounds, bodily sensations and spatial relations. According to one school of thought, draing an atlas of the brain with areas for different parts of the language is impossible for there arent any. It is also probable that the brain does not need its functional parts to have nice cohesive shapes. As long as the connectivity of the neural microcircuit is preserved. There might be some kind of flexibility. There is suggestive evidence for grammar genes, in the sense of genes whose effects seem most specific to the development of the circuits underlying parts of grammar.