Tag Archives: English as a Second Language

‘The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language’, by Steven Pinker – review

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates LanguageThe Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


People tend to judge who you are according to how you speak and write as an effortlessly conspicuous touchstone of your intelligence. The pesky lexical solecism in writing, funny way of talking with accents, and fumbling manner of delivering thoughts are the Three Capital Sins decreed by English Language Purists regarding English Undefiled. Since English is not my mother tongue, such derisive experience often forced me to conform to the notion that the language ability determines general cognitive ability, until I read Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct.

Pinker, who himself came from a French/English/Yiddish linguistic family background, asserts that the salient features of language should not be synonymous with the performer’s general reasoning ability. He expounds that the language is the instinct, a survival mechanism resulting from human evolution, universal in humankind, whether technologically primitive or advanced. It is a highly specialized mental module established through the passing of times by wonderfully flexible human faculty of learning by mutation, heritability, and isolation. The aptly fitting allusion to the biblical Tower of Babel illustrates the universality of language due to the innate universal human consciousness. Hence, different languages are the descendants of the proto-type language with its changeable nature according to the passing of times, calling for changes in social and cultural modes of life.

In this sense, idioms and other forms of English-based pidgins demonstrate divergent evolutionary traits of English, not the illiteracy of the speakers of such languages. Pinker remonstrates with famous critics, editors, and writers, who are bulwarks of the Pure English since language is the instinct, not the mind itself. Their judging people based on how they speak and write shows the ignorance of the truth, seeing what they want from their designated vantage point of arrogant grammarians. Come to think of it, didn’t William Shakespeare, a former maker of leather gloves with a limited education of grammar school, ruffle the feathers of his university-educated colleagues in his time? Leo Tolstoy, Emily Bronte, and Jane Austen were not perfect spellers, nor was Jack Kerouac, who often stumbled into existential lingual vertigo because English was not his mother tongue.

The book covers everything you want to know about language: how and when people started to speak the way they do now, where the origin of proto-type language took place, and why language is not a barometer of intelligence. There is no such thing as linguistic relativity, a principle claiming that how you speak affects how you think, which alternately means that you are not as intelligent as you like to believe because your English is imperfect. I could not believe why many people disagree with Pinker’s view of the language instinct. They pillory him for being something of a language eugenist when he is against those language mavens, one of whom publicly derided Pinker for defending his parents’ less than perfect English language ability. The depth and breadth of knowledge that Pinker shares with his reader become scintillating with his trenchant wit and feisty honesty, comparable to Samuel Johnson, author of A Dictionary of the English Language. This book addressed my soul-searching question of language and its relation to intelligence, and it prescribed to my wounded soul with a new perspective of language as the instinct. Whether or not you subscribe to Pinker’s theory of the language instinct is voluntary, but don’t forget that prejudice darkens the knowledge.



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I write.

oHere I am at the end of the first day of a new week. Upon just returning from working on the evening shift at school in the City, I should go to bed instead of writing this post to rest my weary soul coping with daily rituals of emotional ebbs and flows. Yet this is the best time of me to purge out all my angst, fears, and insecurities I am possessed by; the best time because I can walk out of all my daily duties as an administrative assistant at work, as an eldest daughter of my parents at home, and any other status as a functional member of society. This is my time, mine, and mine only to express myself freely without supervision. So here I am, writing.

I like writing: Poetry, essay, letter, email, and notes – in English. Since English is not a primary language I did not pick up from the infancy to the adolescence, I still have to work hard thereon to make my writing perspicuous for telling the world what I mean to say. The grammar may not seem flawless in my writing, but I have got ideas that few can think of. No, this is not a pretentious glib, nor is this a simulation of writer’s confidence in the English language. Yes, I’ve got it for sure.

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I have recently bought Stephen King’s On Writing from Amazon.com, and this is a magnificent book! I had never enjoyed any book by American writers until I found this book! It’s a bit hasty to talk about my review of the book at this point because I am still reading it, but King is truly original and ingenious in divulging his biographic tales of how he came to write in his childhood; of how he overcame his dypsomania and drug addiction; and of how he arrived as a successful writer in order to help us write well. I shall return to the subject of his book and the review thereof in another posting later, but the most vivid advice from King registered in my mind is that it is not how many vocabularies I know but how well I use the vocabularies that I have already acquired. This is truly an Eureka moment. King’s advice is worth a million. And this has become my axiom for writing since this day.

And I will not be afraid of writing in English any longer in fear of receiving criticism on some grammatical errors because the purpose of my writing is to tell stories, to entertain ideas/feelings that people can connect with, not to wow English teachers/professors/grammarians/conservatives who may disparage a foreigner’s (especially of East Asian ethnicity) English writing skills.

Thus wrote Stephanie S. I write, therefore I am.

To tame a Spirit of Writing: How to start, describe, and end your writing of any kind.

writing1When do you have a writer’s block in writing an essay, email, a letter, or just about anything? Introduction? Body? or Conclusion? My writer’s block begins to form in writing an introduction. How to begin requires clarity, creativity, and cleverness of me in terms of presenting a subject matter of writing lucid and interesting. Everyone has of course different points when it comes to encountering his/her writer’s block. But most of the time, such difficulty results from a lack of organization of an idea, a thought sprung from the mind that needs to be disciplined. Thus, I have briefly summarized the following methods of taming your free spirit of writing:

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A. Writing as a four-step process:

  1. You think of things you want to say-as many as possible as quickly as possible.
  2. You figure out a sensible order for those thoughts; that is, your outline.
  3. With the outline as your guide, you write out a draft.
  4. After setting the draft aside for a matter of minutes or days, you come back and edit it.

As developed by Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, a University of Texas English professor, each of the above-referenced steps are also called by the following names according to the corresponding intellectual functions:

(1)  Mad man, the creative spirit who generates ideas (Brainstorming);

  • Your essential Imagination, however sloppy and raw it may be
  • In this stage, you are going for copious thoughts as many as possible
  • Jotting down ideas in the absence of sentences and paragraphs
  • Fast and furious outpourings of thoughts, ideas.
  • Need to protect against the Judge disapproving the sloppiness.
  • Save the Judge for later stage in the writing; otherwise, the Madman could be at considerable risk, causing ‘writer’s block”.
  • Writers commonly have little battles in their heads if the hypercritical Judge is allowed to start “censoring” ideas even as the Madman is trying to develop them.
  • “Keep the Judge out of the realm of the Madman!”
  • The Non-linear outlined ideas in resemblance of the Madman frame of mind.

(2)  Architect, the planner who ensures that the structure is sound and appealing (Syntax builder to make a sensible, effective sentence structure;

  • He must arrange the ideas with sensible sentence structures with the right words.
  • An architectural design/outline with specifications is to be made for the next step.
  • However, for the Architect to do his job well, the Madman should be given a complete free rein to exercise his right of free thoughts without linguistic boundaries.

(3)   Carpenter, the builder who makes the corners square and the counters level (Crafting of words for the effect of articulation); and

  • He is the “leader”, who will lead the writing to an effective force of communicability.
  • According to the Architect’s design with specifications, the Carpenter builds the draft.
  • Ideally, the Carpenter writes quickly, treating the outline as a series of gaps that need filling in.
  • In fact, although this stage is where writing begins in earnest, the carpentry is the hardest part of writing in terms of producing a draft.
  • The reason for this difficulty results from the absence of the Madman (Thinking of Ideas) and Architect (Sequencing the Ideas) stage to singlehandedly use the Carpenter (Verbalizing the Ideas).
  • Such disregard for these Two Men stages is out of the context; the Carpenter’s job would be relatively easy with the proper jobs by these two men.
  • Keep the autocratic Judge out of sight at this stage; otherwise, you will slow down yourself. The Carpenter is a Writer, not an Editor.
  • Still, though, the Carpenter must exercise considerable discretion in following the Architect’s plans by making architectural refinements here and there when producing paragraphs and sections.

(4) Judge, who checks to see whether anything has gone wrong (Editing of the product to ensure communicability thereof).

  • The Judge finally takes over when you have a raw draft.
  • You can now fix the ragged edges.
  • The Judge does everything from smoothing over rough transitions to correcting grammar, spelling, and typos. (The Smooth Syntax Operator)
  • Or the alternative name is “Janitor” who tidies up little messes.

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B. Visualization of the works (as in a legal case)

  1. The nonlinear Whirlybird by the Mad Man
  1. The Design Plan by the Architect

1)   Main issue: The cause of action and the question thereon. e.g., “Upon being reprimanded, Penfold threatened his supervisor by saying, “I am gonna get you for this!” The supervisor immediately fired him. Was the termination justified?

2)  Detailed factual statement

3)  General principles re the cause of action. That is, the evidence on each element of his cause of action, causation, and damages.e.g., re: threatened violence at work

  • Corporate policy statement
  • Type of threat involved
  • General/specific
  • Violent/nonviolent
  • Effect on others
  • Coworkers
  • Target
  • Examples relating to safety in modern workplace

4)  Caselaw on similar threats

5)  Decision in this case: the facts suggest that threat was real. Internal appellate-review board agreed.

6)  Conclusion

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