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The Language Instinct

From Robert Lane Greene’s “Five Books” interview on The Browser:

On to Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, How the Mind Creates Language, which is incredibly famous. Is the virtue of this book that linguistics is an incredibly complicated subject and Pinker is somehow able to make its findings accessible to the lay reader?

There are two achievements in this book. One is to smuggle in Linguistics 101 into a popular book, which is just fantastic. It’s a fun read, he’s a really engaging writer. If you finish this book, you’ll never see language in the same way again. I felt that way when I picked it up about ten years ago – it set me on the path that led me to write my own book. At the same time, he also smuggles in his own argument about the nature of language, and the title says it all. He’s one of the camp that thinks there is this thing called ‘the language instinct’ that is hard-wired into the brain. Languages are fundamentally similar around the world, they show too many characteristics in common. There are too many logical ways to design a language that you could use, but no human natural language does. So his conclusion is that we have, through evolution, developed a language instinct. That is not something every linguist believes by any means. There’s a big disagreement over it.

But then Pinker also gives you all this fantastic stuff about how language really works in the first place. Anybody who is really curmudgeonly, who says: ‘Uggh. Language. Everybody I know speaks and writes like an idiot around me!’ He really turns that on its head and shows what a miracle the human language really is.

I have recently begun elementary French lessons with my children, to prepare them for the month we are going to spend in Paris this fall. I have been startled by how well my youngest child, who is five, has taken to French. She pronounces it amazingly well, even as a beginner, and is such a natural. Her older brother is progressing at the pace you would expect, but she is so good at it, and has become so good at it so quickly, that it got me to thinking about how some people just have an inborn facility for language. Her pronunciation is already better than most students have after a year of classwork.

Maybe I had that kind of gift at that young age, and I never had the chance to develop it. It’s impossible to say. Working with her and the French flash cards at night over the past few days, though, has made me think of a language gift as like inborn mathematical or musical talent. Hardly an original thought, I know, but this is the first time I’ve personally seen a small child at the beginning of language study show such remarkable facility with a foreign language. She is also unusually good for her age at using the English language, so it makes sense to me that there must be some kind of innate gift there. Another interesting facet of this, at least to me, is that she really loves this stuff. She told me last night after flash cards that she wants to work twice as hard tomorrow to learn this stuff. My French is very, very basic, so at this rate, she is going to outstrip my ability to teach her.

It will be something else to watch her in France this fall, and see how she blossoms in a French immersion environment.

When I was in Paris earlier this year, I spent some time with some European pals who had lived for seven years in the Bay Area, where their children were born and raised. Their kids are young — 10 and 8, if memory serves — and already speak English, Dutch, and French fluently, because they were raised in all three languages. The plasticity of the human mind when it comes to language is incredible.

I would love to hear of you readers’ experiences with language, especially in teaching the young.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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