The publication of Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures (1957) changed forever the way people concerned with language would look upon it. Within a decade of its publication, the teaching of the new Chomskian transformational-generative grammar was being widely mandated in schools throughout the United States. A cottage industry developed to produce textbooks based on the transformational-generative approach to language, some in series that had one book for each grade from three through twelve, such as the series created by Paul Roberts and published by Harcourt Brace.
The appearance of these series, however well-intentioned and intelligent they were, backfired in many instances because teachers, unable to understand the highly technical approach to language promulgated by Chomsky, even as simplified for popular consumption by Roberts and others, in many cases simply gave up teaching grammar, even though all sorts of summer workshops on the new grammar attracted hordes of participants, as did the workshops offered by publishers trying to promote their new, highly lucrative product. The books sold briskly. For the most part, however, they collected dust on classroom shelves.
Chomsky contended in Syntactic Structures, as well as in his later Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Language and Mind (1968; rev. ed. 1972), and Rules and Representations (1980) that language as it is used universally is governed by “super rules.” Individual language groups—Romance, Germanic, Oriental, Arabic, African—possess their own distinguishing characteristics and vocabularies, but underlying all language, according to Chomsky, are universal rules and sounds that constitute human language.
Children born into a given language environment quickly assimilate and use the characteristics peculiar to the language environments into which they are born, but all languages and families of languages have common elements, syntactic structures, of which every human in some mysterious way has an underlying awareness. More than any other factor, it is human beings’ ability to use language that distinguishes them from other biological forms.
The Language Instinct explores many of the areas of language into which Chomsky and his followers had long been delving. Steven Pinker warns his readers that his book is about spoken rather than written language, and that it is not about the English language per se. The Language Instinct does not deal with the niceties of grammar, punctuation, usage, or other schoolmarmish considerations. Rather, it is a broad, well-informed study that considers language as it exists among, and is used by, human beings throughout the world. It poses pertinent questions about how human language came into being.
Pinker, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and where, incidentally, Chomsky has spent his professional career, has long been interested in language acquisition among young children. He contends that language is genetically programmed into human beings, who then develop the ability to speak the particular varieties of language present in their environments.
In support of his highly controversial thesis, Pinker points out that people begin to talk in much the same way that spiders begin to spin webs: no one specifically teaches them language, yet they seem genetically predisposed to developing an ability to use it. Fully understanding what a highly charged word “instinct” is to educated people, and especially to psychologists, Pinker nevertheless makes the conscious decision to use that word when he speaks about how children learn to talk.
Those with opposing views might contend that children learn to talk by imitating the people who surround them, and, up to a point, even Pinker would admit to the partial validity of such a statement. Imitation, however, does not explain why two-year-olds reared in an environment in which relatively standard English is spoken consistently will say things like “they drived” or “I drinked,” when certainly that is not the form of the past tense of these irregular verbs used by the people around them.
Pinker also suggests that young children in their most egocentric stages do not imitate the behaviors of adults. Their parents may be sedate, considerate airline passengers, for example, whereas their two- or three-year-olds may be noisy hellions, annoying everyone within earshot of them.
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