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According to the Cambridge Dictionary, language is an
arbitrary means of communicating through oral, written, spoken, and/or gestured
symbols (dictionary.cambridge.org). In his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker aims to enhance the readers
knowledge about different aspects of language and explain the underlying
concepts of how it is formed and used. Whether the reader is familiar with
concepts of language or just reading for pleasure, Pinker is able to
effectively communicate and explain the many different principles that go into
language learning and how they affect our daily language use.

            In The Sounds of Silence, Pinker talks
about the importance of sound, mainly in relation to speech and perception. Phonology
is very important in the role of an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher
because having extended knowledge on the pronunciations of my native language
can help me to better assist non-native speakers in theirs. It will allow me to
better guide others in improving their speech skills which can positively
impact their reading and writing skills. Teaching phonology can be difficult
because the English language will not have the same number of phonemes as any
given student’s L1. However, Pinker points out that this does not really
matter, because in speech, we often do not hear the phonemes, rather we focus
on the abstract units of language underlying the sounds that we hear (Pinker 191).
He also goes into detail about how the sounds that we hear combine to create
syllables and then words and how the sounds that we make are merely
combinations of our six speech organs. For any student learning an L2, it is
imperative that they learn to form the combinations of the L2 in order to master
their pronunciation. With this chapter, Pinker aims to show that English is not
a phonetic language and that the phonemes are just a pattern of sounds that
often do not not match up with the conventional spelling or pronunciation and
implies that the English languages depends more on a morphemic writing system.

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            In Words, Words, Words, Pinker focuses now
about English syntax and morphology in comparison to other languages. He
particularly talks about affixes and points out that the English language, although
containing many, lacks in relation to other, less common languages. What is
interesting about his comparison is that Pinker alludes to a discovery by
Richard Sproat that pointed out that English is in fact very flexible in morphology
(Pinker 129). The English language allows us to be able to almost infinitely
form words out of other words by adding morphemes, the smallest units of
language that have meaning, in their proper places. Although Pinker mentions
various affixes, he only talks about them in relation to how they are able to
convert the meaning of a stem. Although affixes do not form words when isolated,
apart from merely adding meaning, some also carry their own meaning. Understanding
this is essential to understand the language itself because it is the part of
language that allows us to create unique phrases. Understanding the morphology along
with phonology of the English language is the basis of learning to use it as a
means of communication because they are the basis for forming words, phrases,
and eventually sentences.

            In
order to be able to form meaningful phrases, and subsequently sentences, one
must understand how the structure of the language works. In order to understand
the structure, it helps to first parse it, especially for L2 learners. By
breaking down a phrase into its linguistic components, the learner is able to
understand the fundamental elements of the learning language. This also assists
when committing the lexical categories to memory. Pinker talks frequently about
ambiguity, but fails to mention one of the most common way to deal with this, by
using the garden path model. This model proposes a way to process sentences and
asserts that when coming across sentences such as garden path ones, that one
meaning is interpreted, but that with reconsideration, one is able to see the
possibility of multiple meanings (Callysta 2). Syntax plays a vital role in
language learning because if you cannot properly format a sentence so that
other speakers of the language can understand you, then you have not
successfully acquired the language. It can be problematic to communicate if a
speaker lacks knowledge of syntax and as an ESL teacher, it is essential to
ensure that students have proficient levels of comprehension and the ability to
formulate coherent phrases. In order for them to do this, they must be taught
how to combine phonemes to create meaning and then combine meanings to create
sentences and phrases.

            In
order to effectively teach English, it is important to understand its evolution.
Although English is a very flexible language, it is also very inflexible in some
instances, such as word order. English has a strict SVO word order which is why
many learners struggle with translation from their L1. Many languages have a what
Pinker refers to as a “free-word-order” which allows languages to vary in
syntax. (Pinker 235). The interesting thing about that English language that I
had previously never thought about it that is it subject-prominent. I never
realized that although a sentence may not necessarily have a subject that
refers to an action, every sentence must still contain a subject. For example, Pinker
uses “It is raining.” and points out that the “it”, although it is technically the
subject, in fact does not refer to anything (Pinker 233).

Although Pinker does not
completely agree with Chomsky’s idea of universal grammar in he constantly
references it in relation to language history. He believes that in addition to
language being innate, that there is also a learned aspect of it. He recognizes
that Chomsky is right in that we are born with a language acquisition device,
but negates the idea of a total universal grammar since this would imply that
there is at least one characteristic that connects all languages. He illustrates
his point by saying that language change does not always corelate with linguistic
and grammar change (Pinker 234). He further defends his point of view that language
cannot fully be innate by referring to the fact that language is creative and everchanging
and its grammar is constantly evolving.

The variation and evolution
of language does not only affect the language, has a large impact on the ability
to learn it. Nonetheless, we are all born with some linguistic ability, and
this can be attested to by various psychological experiments. Despite this, we
don’t really begin to use words until about a year. Up until the one-word stage,
babies tend to just babble. It is amazing that within six months infants learn how
to distinguish phonemes, but it takes them six more months to combine those
phonemes to make words, and six more months to combine those words with other
words ending with exponential vocabulary growth. Despite their newly acquired lexis,
according to Pinker, the actual language usage does not become more complex (Pinker
271). The interesting thing about this is that although first language acquisition
happens in relatively predictive stages, all children learn at different rates.
This is one of the issues that many ESL teachers face because of the variation
in the students’ stages of language learning, although this can be partially
solved through various methods including student mixing, and teaching style
variation. Pinker claims that true grammar comprehension of a language is not contingent
on practice and imitation, because it does not actually aid in a person’s
understanding of a language (Pinker 280). While this can be true, this is
somewhat flawed because as he also points out, children may take feedback and commit
it to memorization, while in a way, still benefiting from this as shown in
their improved application of grammar rules.

Finally, with grammar
rules and understanding of a language come actual usage. Grammar is essentially
categorized into prescriptive, being the strict rules that one must follow to achieve
“correctness”, and descriptive, which studies the actual usage of a language. To
understand correctness, it is necessary to understand what constitutes as “grammatical”.
Prescriptivists typically define it as something that is in accordance with strict
grammar rules. I agree with Pinker in that prescriptivist don’t really have any
valid authority for setting must-follow rules in a language, because odds are,
they don’t follow the very rules that they make up. It’s important to
understand that having a general English for purposes of mutual intelligibility
is important, but having one “standard” English is an impractical and ridiculous
concept. After reevaluating this, then we can begin to truly understand
language and its usage in real world application.

 However, pedagogical grammar is rather prescriptive
and what an average ESL teacher uses. Pedagogical grammar rules are about “correctness”
of usage. Nonetheless, it also concerns itself with descriptive grammar teaching
in that it strives for the learner to be able to use the word in formal as well
as informal contexts. It is critical to combine both of these in an ESL context
in order for students to achieve true fluency. It is important to know the
so-called rules of a language, but it is also important to understand that many
native speakers of a language disregard many of these rules. The only
requirement is essentially to be able to communicate to the point where others
are able to comprehend.

Language is a part of our
identity. The moment we open our mouths, people are instantly able to make judgements,
whether true or false, about us. This is because we adapt the speech that we
our surrounded with, and subconsciously it becomes a part of who we are. The capacity
of an infant to develop speech depends on the capability of the child to differentiate
between phonemes. They must first decipher the sounds of speech and then words
which carry meaning and this whole process before the infant is even one-year
old. They are then able to replicate and imitate things that they hear and are
even able to create unique phrases. They show signs of ability to communicate
verbally through babbling, single words, and then two-word speech until they
are able to speak at a level of fluency. This is highly similar to the process
of second language acquisition and as an ESL teacher, being able to comprehend
this process is vital to the success in being able to effectively teach
English. In Pinker’s book, he coherently explains various concepts concerning
the English language ranging from understanding the basic sound units, to reaching
nativeness through the application of the underlying principles of the language.

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