The Language Instinct – Steven Pinker

I recently picked up another one of Steven Pinker’s books, The Language Instinct. It contains an absolutely fascinating explanation of what language really is and how humans interpret it. Today I’d like to highlight one of the book’s chapters, “The Sounds of Silence,” in which Pinker discusses an interesting phenomenon that we all experience quite frequently but have likely never thought about.

The first is the idea that language is nothing more than a series of noises, meaning that our brain can sometimes find language in places we wouldn’t expect it to. Pinker explains this idea with an enlightening and somewhat amusing story, which I will retell here. When Pinker was a student, he worked in a laboratory at McGill University that studied auditory perception. His job was to synthesize trains of overlapping tones and categorize them as either one rich tone or two distinct tones. One morning while he was listening to one such set of overlapping tones, the sounds he was hearing suddenly turned into “a chorus of screaming munchkins. Like this: (beep boop-boop) (beep boop-boop) (beep boop-boop) HUMPTY – DUMPTY – HUMPTY – DUMPTY.” He double-checked the audio file and confirmed that he really was listening to the same two tones, meaning the effect had to be perceptual. When a fellow student entered the lab, Pinker explained his strange experience and conveyed his excitement. The student decided to give him some advice: don’t tell anyone except perhaps Professor Poser, the director of the school’s psychopathology program.

Years later, Pinker discovered what he had heard. A study by two psychologists showed that when presented with three simultaneous wavering tones that followed the same contours as the bands of energy in the sentence “Where were you a year ago,” 25 percent of people actually heard the sentence even though not a single word was presented to them. The rest heard what we’d all expect to hear: a series of science fiction sounds or computer beeps.

Lying at the heart of this discovery is the central idea of the book, the language instinct. Language really is nothing more than a series of combinations of such wavering tones that our brains are trained to understand have certain meanings. To quote Pinker, “when we listen to speech the actual sounds go in one ear and out the other; what we perceive is language. Our experience of words and syllables, of the “b”-ness of b and the “ee”-ness of ee, is as separable from our experiences of pitch and loudness as lyrics are from a score.”

This phenomenon creates a few astonishing illusions. The first of which is that after a person watches a subtitled movie in a language they don’t understand for a few minutes, they will start to believe they are actually understanding what is being said. Furthermore, when a person sees a mouth articulate a sound, they will hear the sound they see being articulated instead of the sound that is actually being produced. To prove this, researchers dubbed the sound ga over a close-up video of a mouth articulating va, ba, tha, or da, and the participants heard the consonant sound that the mouth made regardless of the actual ga sound produced by the video. 

If you’d like to learn more about this phenomenon or the idea of the language instinct, I highly recommend you check out the rest of Pinker’s fantastic book.

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