I recently listened to an audiobook version of Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (1994). It was interesting but also set a personal record for Most Frustrating Book I’ve Ever Heard. Let’s break down some of the myths he presents.
Myth #1: Children are better at learning languages than adults are.
This strikes me as an utterly stupid and ridiculous claim. But I get why people think it’s true. First, we need to understand something. One of the essential ingredients for any scientific analysis is a control group. You need to compare things before you can make grand claims about what causes what. For example, if you grow some plants and applaud them each day, you can’t conclude that clapping helps plants grow. You need to grow a similar group of plants which you DON’T applaud each day and then COMPARE the two groups. If you find no difference in their growth, you will in fact conclude that the clapping did nothing. If the results go against what you were hoping for, that doesn’t make the experiment “inconclusive”. All proper experiments have conclusions, whether they make you happy or not.
So why do people think kids learn language better than adults? Well, practically all children learn to speak and later to read and write. It’s a natural, effortless process (meaning the effort is forgotten later in life) which pretty much everyone goes through. But any adult who has tried to learn a foreign language knows how challenging it can be. The grammar can seem alien and confusing, there are so many words to learn, native speakers say words way too rapidly, it’s hard to lose your accent, some sounds are difficult to produce or distinguish between and so on. So surely that settles it! Adults can’t learn language as well as kids. Case closed.
However, is it a fair comparison? Here’s what you’d have to do to properly test the claim. Take John Smith, who’s lived in Australia his whole life. He knows no German. We offer to pay his salary for the next 5 years and send him to Germany. He stays with a family and is completely immersed in the German language for the next 5 years. Everyone is patient with him and he receives enthusiastic applause for simple tasks like reciting the alphabet, counting to ten, spelling 3-letter words and using multi-syllabic words. They find him cute and give constant feedback whether they realise it or not – he says something a little wrong and they say it back to him properly. The question is this: after 5 years, who would be a more capable German speaker out of John Smith and a native German 5-year-old?
I have a feeling this experiment has never been carried out. Consider the reality when someone tries to learn a foreign language. They brag about spending a full hour every day studying, listening to recordings, browsing a dictionary and completing online quizzes. Note than 1 hour of German each day means perhaps 10 or more hours of English. Children spend the entire day solely on the language they’re learning. Also, people who try to learn foreign languages use many different methods. Many of them are not effective. That reflects on the methods, not on the adult’s capacity to learn. Also, most adults are working and have many other life commitments. Children’s lives are full of play, exploration and constant feedback and attention when they’re learning to speak.
Pinker mentions how children’s brains grow as they learn language. This doesn’t prove anything. There are plenty of adults who successfully learn foreign languages or other new skills. I learned to skateboard in my late 20s. So adult brains can learn, as can infant ones. And adults who struggle to learn are most likely grown-up versions of kids who struggled to learn. Also, adult brains have a lot of built-up knowledge as well as the capacity to grapple with abstract concepts, think of multiple things at once and self-reflect to a degree that children can’t typically match.
When children learn, they get bombarded with and make use of hundreds of repetitive phrases of similar or identical structure. “Where’s your nose? Where’s your mouth? Where’s your eye? Where’s your knee?” And so on, with lots of vocabulary practice and new structures being gradually added along the way. But adults stare at conjugation tables and use flashcards with little or no human interaction or feedback. The methods are worlds apart as are the unsurprising results. Using the right methods and full immersion and focus, I’d estimate adults as 10 to 100 times faster at learning languages compared to young children.
Myth #2: Lower class speech is simply a grammatical variant of proper speech.
“Yo, so dis nigga was lookin’ at me, right? An’ I was all like – yo, y’all best step back ’cause I ain’t done nuthin’ wrong, ya feelin’ me?”
If you had to guess, would you say this person is more like to be a university graduate or unemployed? Pinker points out that some grammatical structures in “black English” are consistent. Fine. But is that the ONLY difference between the way such people speak and proper English? Yes, I think there’s such a thing as proper English. The difference in language and accents between American, Australian, Kiwi, Irish, English and Scottish people are one thing. Different vowels, slang words and phrases, spellings, conventions, syllabic emphasis and so on. Most of the broad grammar rules are identical. However, the difference between upper and lower class speech of these various places is a much different phenomenon which I would anticipate is strongly correlated with IQ, income, crime, vocabulary, reading level and so on. For Pinker to dismiss the difference as purely grammatical in nature is narrow-minded and “be some stupid shit right there”.
Myth #3: Endangered languages should be saved.
I completely understand if linguists take an interest in all kinds of languages new and old for inspection and appreciation. But don’t force people to use a dying language and don’t force it to be taught in a classroom. Economics is the study of scarce resources which have alternative uses (as Thomas Sowell reiterates time and again in Basic Economics (2000)). Every ounce of energy spent speaking a dying language is energy that could have been spent speaking a living or growing language. Let people use languages in whatever ways most benefit them. If nobody is speaking a language, it simply indicates that it has become redundant, no longer as useful or efficient as the alternatives available. Scientists are welcome to preserve some language somehow but only at their expense. If the costs of preserving it exceed the benefits to be gained from its preservation, that’s simply a message from reality to let it go and move on to more worthwhile endeavours. Similarly, we don’t force people to keep using floppy disks although individuals are welcome to preserve them in some way if they choose to.
Myth #4: A Martian would conclude that all humans speak the same language.
This is too vague to mean anything. It’s similar to perfection. Depending on your definition, either everything’s perfect or nothing is. And with empathy as well. If a woman says “well, as a woman, I think we should do this”, she’s implying that she has some kind of special insight that a man would be incapable of producing independently. But this line of reasoning can only really lead to two possible conclusions. I have blue eyes. Do I speak on behalf of blue-eyed people? And can 31-year-olds understand what it’s like to be 32? Either everyone is sufficiently different to have no idea what anybody else is going through or everyone can empathise with everyone else. Of course, there may be varying degrees of connection and empathy, but there are no clear-cut barriers.
So it is with language. If you’re vague enough then yes, all languages are one and the same. If you’re strict enough, a husband and wife speak different languages since she knows 30 more words and he has slightly better diction. It’s a shame to throw away all the subtleties of overall patterns between languages with this blanket generalisation. And Pinker doesn’t even clarify his definition of language. Surely the ability to communicate back-and-forth is key. In which case, French and Japanese are well and truly different. But of course, there are fascinating family trees of languages, just as there are with living things. And the universe itself could be said to use language – the language of maths, science, time and logic.
Human language may not have been consciously designed, but it evolved within a reality of cause-and-effect and the need to survive. We need grammatical consistency to avoid ambiguity. We rush through or combine the sounds of common words and phrases for convenience and efficiency. We create words for concepts which are constantly referenced. We steal words from foreigners. We make alphabets so that we can spell out words and record our thoughts. We construct complex sentences to express complex ideas, but they usually use simple rules added onto each-other. Earth is full of all kinds of different languages. Of course they have things in common. But many of the deepest connections may have less to do with humans and more to do with the nature of reality itself.