Sarah Wilson on whether language is instinctual or learned

Claiming that humans are born with an innate capacity for language, psychologist Steven Pinker's 1994 book The Language Instinct reignited a long-running debate. On one side were evolutionary theorists like Pinker, who used Noam Chomsky's ideas, among others, to argue that language evolved through a process of natural selection, and that children are born with a genetic instinct for speech.

On the other were linguists like Geoffrey Sampson, whose 1997 book Educating Eve: The 'Language Instinct' Debate used Karl Popper's theories of learning to suggest that we are born knowing nothing, but are able to learn anything: "Eve was not born a know-all. She was ignorant. But she was a good learner."

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, published in 2003, was Pinker's response: attacking the idea that a child's mind is a "blank slate" ready to be written upon.

In his latest book, The Stuff of Thought: Language As a Window Into Human Nature, Pinker argues that the words we use, the verbs and nouns, metaphors and grammatical structures, can tell us a great deal about the societies we live in, as well as our own minds and the way they work. He believes all humans share a "language of thought" and that studying the way this works can reveal how we strive to make sense of the world around us.

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