Pinker, Steven


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I was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1954, to a secular but culturally observant Jewish family, son of a clothing salesman and a homemaker (both would go on to other careers when I went to college). I studied Social Science at Dawson College, a two-year course in Montreal, before earning a Bachelor's degree in psychology at McGill University, also in Montreal. As an undergraduate I was obsessed with all aspects of psychology, and did research on memory, auditory pattern recognition (with Al Bregman), social psychology, and behavioural psychology. I entered the psychology department at Harvard University in 1976, a low point for the job prospects of academics, but I had confidence that the field I chose, cognitive psychology, would expand. My doctoral dissertation was on mental images of three-dimensional space, but I also studied with Ro ger Brown, one of the first psychologists in the modern era to study language development in children. In 1979 I received my PhD and did a postdoctoral fellowship down the road at the Massachusetts Insti tute of Technology (MIT), where I worked with Joan Bresnan, a brilliant linguist. I also chatted now and again with Noam Chomsky, the scholar who revolutionized linguistics in the late 1950s and who shocked the behaviourist establishment by claiming that language was an innate faculty of the human mind. After spending a year apiece at Harvard and Stanford, I returned to MIT's psychology department (now the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences) in 1982, where I have remained ever since. During that time I have worked on a theory of how children acquire their mother tongue (published in my 1984 book Language Learnability and Language Development), and on how people learn and use verbs (published in a 1989 book). Around that time I embarked on a new research topic that I have pursued ever since: understanding th e interaction between memory and computation in language by studying every aspect of regular and irregular verbs. Regular verbs like walk-walked are predictable and can be computed by a rule ('add –ed'); irregular verbs like come-came and take-took are idiosyncratic and must be memorized. Otherwise they are matched on meaning and length, so they are an ideal way to disentangle the mental grammar (rules that combine words or bits of words) and the mental lexicon (the repository of stored information about words in memory). I have looked at how children learn them (including why they make errors like breaked and comed, which could not have been memorized by parents), how they change over the centuries, how they work in different languages, where they are computed in the brain, and how they give rise to linguistic puzzles, such as the fact that no one knows the plural of Walkman and that English teachers frown on Bob Dylan's Lay Lady Lay and Eric Clapton's Lay Down Sally. This work was summarized in my popular science book Words and Rules. I teach Introductory Psychology at MIT, and also write integrative books for a wide audience. The Language Instinct explained everything you always wanted to know about language, and How the Mind Works presented a unified account of the human mind. Both used the framework of evolutionary psychology, which treats the mind as a computational system that evolved to solve the kinds of problems faced by our foraging ancestors. Written by: Stephen Pinker