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Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Language Instinct, The Web, and Me

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

This is another non-fiction book - an excellent pop take on the entire field of language acquisition in a nutshell. Soon after Sphere opened up the possibility of doing research in psychology to me, I came across the term Cognitive Science on a list of majors during a college career fair (I want to say it was at Carnegie-Mellon's booth, but I'm not sure). The person manning the booth explained to me what it was, and much like reading Sphere it made another piece just fall into place. That was it - the specific subfield I wanted to study, what I wanted to major in. Like magic, I'd wondered if it existed and now someone had just given it a name for me.

Knowing this was great, but also challenging as a high school student in the mid-90s. My high school had little relevant information for me - one psychology class generally considered a blowoff. The web was young, but it was still the best resource I had. What little I could find on the topic was from the websites of the various Cog Sci university departments - MIT, of course, had one of the most well-fleshed out websites at the time. And so I read essays by people like Marvin Minsky and Rodney Brooks on artificial intelligence, and browsed through lab web pages getting an idea of what sorts of research was happening. I also discovered the name Steven Pinker, and then I happened upon his book one day in Barnes & Noble.

Now, The Language Instinct did not lead me directly to my current research interests. In fact, you could say that it caused me to go down a path that was not successful, and was possibly a diversion. But even though I did not wind up researching language acquisition, it was a useful path for me at the time for several reasons. After I read the book, I was convinced that that was it, I wanted to research language acquisition, period. I also wanted to go to MIT to do it (and talked about it endlessly in my admissions essay).

So it led me to MIT, and that is certainly a part of my life that I am thankful for. It also led me to working in Pinker's lab, which is a terrific thing to have on your CV even years later, when your own work is much more impressive than the data entry you happened to do under a famous name. Pinker was even my undergraduate advisor, even after I'd left his lab and language acquisition entirely, and he was a good one who encouraged me to take the classes that interested me over anyone's idea of which were "important." So even though I later decided I was interested in learning much more broadly, and in application and design in addition to basic research, the mere act of reading this book had a huge and undeniable impact on the next few years of my life, and on my career path from there. (It's also just a great book for anyone with a passing interest in linguistics and/or learning and development.)

This is the fourth and final post in a series on the impact that informal learning has had on my life and career. To see all of these, click on the "Informal Learning and Me" tag.