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Behavioral Theory

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Language acquisition refers to the way humans are able to develop the ability to understand and use language. Burrhus Frederic Skinner's theory is centred around behaviourism. Behaviourism is the idea that we can explain phenomena such as language through the lens of conditioning.

Who was BF Skinner?

B F Skinner was a psychologist who specialised in behaviour. He was credited with popularising the idea of 'radical behaviourism', which took the ideas of behaviourism further by suggesting that our idea of 'free will' is entirely determined by situational factors. For example, someone's decision to break the law is influenced by situational determining factors and has little to do with individual morals or disposition.

Behavioral Theory, A photo of psychologist BF Skinner, StudySmarterBF Skinner proposed the behavioural theory

What did Skinner's theory propose?

Skinner's imitation theory proposes that language develops as a result of children trying to imitate their caregivers or those around them. The theory assumes that children have no innate ability to learn language and rely on operant conditioning to form and improve their understanding and use of it. Behavioural theory believes that children are born 'tabula rasa' - as a 'blank slate'.

What is operant conditioning?

Operant conditioning is the idea that actions are reinforced. There are two types of reinforcement that are vital to this theory: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement . In Skinner's theory, children alter their use of language in response to this reinforcement.

For example, a child may correctly ask for food, (eg. saying something like 'mama, dinner') then receive positive reinforcement by receiving the food they'd asked for, or being told they're clever by their caregiver. Alternatively, if a child uses language incorrectly, they may simply be ignored, or may be corrected by the caregiver, which would be negative reinforcement.

The theory suggests that when receiving positive reinforcement, the child realises which use of language gets them the reward, and will continue to use language in that way in the future. In the case of negative reinforcement, the child alters their use of language to match a correction given by the caregiver, or may independently try something different.

Behavioral Theory, Skinner Flowchart, StudySmarterFig 2: A flowchart showing how skinner proposed operant conditioning would affect language

Evidence for Skinner's theory

While Skinner's language acquisition theory itself has limited academic support compared to nativist and cognitive theories, operant conditioning is well understood and supported as a behaviourist explanation for many things, and there may be some ways that it can be applied to language development. For example, children may still be able to learn that certain sounds or phrases get certain results, even if this doesn't contribute to their language development as a whole.

Children also tend to pick up on the accents and colloquialisms of those around them, which suggests that imitation may play some role in language acquisition. During school life, their use of language will become more accurate, and more complex. This can be partly attributed to the fact that teachers play a more active role than caregivers in correcting the mistakes children make while speaking. A further criticism, made by academics like Jeanne Aitchison, is that parents and care givers don't tend to correct language use but truthfulness. If a child says something which is grammatically wrong but truthful the care giver is likely to praise the child. But if the child says something which is grammatically accurate but untrue, the care giver is likely to respond negatively. For a care giver, truth is more important than language accuracy. This goes against Skinner's theory. Language use is not corrected as often as Skinner thinks. Let's look at some more limitations of the. theory.

Limitations of Skinner's theory

Skinner's theory has numerous limitations and some of its assumptions have been disproven or questioned by other theorists and researchers. Let's take a look at some notable limitations.

Developmental Milestones

Contrary to Skinner's theory, research has shown that children go through a series of developmental milestones at around the same age. This suggests that there may be more than just simple imitation and conditioning taking place, and that children may actually have an internal mechanism that facilitates language development.

This was later described as the 'language acquisition device' (LAD) by Noam Chomsky. According to Chomsky, the language acquisition device is the part of the brain that encodes language, just as certain parts of the brain encode sound.

The critical period of language acquisition

Age 7 is thought to be the end of the critical period for language acquisition. If a child has not developed language by this point, they will never be able to fully grasp it. This suggests that there might be something universal among human beings that governs language development, as this would explain why the critical period is the same for everyone regardless of their first language background.

Genie (as studied by Curtiss et al., 1974)¹ is perhaps the most notable example of someone who has failed to develop language by the critical period. Genie was a young girl who was raised in complete isolation and never given a chance to develop language due to her solitude and poor living conditions. When she was discovered in 1970, she was twelve years old. She had missed the critical period and was therefore unable to become fluent in English despite extensive attempts to teach and rehabilitate her.

The complicated nature of language

It has also been argued that language and its development are simply too complicated to be taught sufficiently through reinforcement alone. Children learn grammatical rules and patterns seemingly independently of positive or negative reinforcement, as evidenced in the tendency among children to over- or under-apply linguistic rules. For example, calling every four legged animal a 'dog' if they learned the word for dog before the names of other animals, or saying words like 'goed' instead of went'. There are so many combinations of words, grammatical structures and sentences that it seems impossible that this could all be a consequence of imitation and conditioning alone. This is called the 'poverty of stimulus' argument. For more information, see our articles on Chomsky and Innatism.

Behavioural Theory - Key takeaways

  • BF Skinner proposed that language acquisition was a result of imitation and operant conditioning.
  • This theory suggests that operant conditioning is responsible for a child's progress through the stages of language acquisition.
  • According to the theory, a child will seek positive reinforcement and wish to avoid negative reinforcement, consequently amending their use of language in response.
  • The fact that children imitate accents and colloquialisms, alter their use of language when entering school, and associate some sounds/phrases with positive outcomes, may be evidence for Skinner's theory.
  • Skinner's theory is limited. It can't account for the critical period, comparative developmental milestones regardless of language background, and the complexities of language.

1 Curtiss et al. The Development of Language in Genius: a Case of Language Acquisition beyond the "critical period" . 1974.

Image, Skinner, commons.wikimedia.org

Behavioral Theory

Behaviourist theory suggests that language is learned from the environment and through conditioning.

Behaviourism was developed by John B. Watson. B. F Skinner founded radical behaviourism.

Skinner’s theory of language acquisition has been heavily criticised for its numerous limitations. Some theories, such as Chomsky’s nativist theory, better explain the process.

Some phenomena may be considered evidence of behaviourist language acquisition theory. For example, children pick up accents from their caregivers, suggesting some possible imitation.

Final Behavioral Theory Quiz

Question

What is language acquisition theory?

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Language acquisition theory studies how humans learn and develop language.

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Who was B. F. Skinner?

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B. F. Skinner was a psychologist who specialised in behaviourism.

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What is radical behaviorism?

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Radical behaviourism was pioneered by B. F Skinner. It suggests that there is no true free will, and our behaviour is dictated by situational factors.

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What does B. F. Skinner’s theory of language acquisition propose?

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B. F. Skinner’s theory proposes that language acquisition is a result of imitation and operant conditioning.

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What is meant by operant conditioning?

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Operant conditioning is the process of actions being influenced by reinforcement.

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How might positive reinforcement occur in the language acquisition process?

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Positive reinforcement would occur if the child used language correctly, and this would be in the form of verbal praise or a reward (such as food).

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How might positive and negative reinforcement help a child develop language according to this theory?

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If the child is praised or rewarded, they will likely continue to use language correctly. If they are corrected or ignored, they will amend their use of language to get a better response.

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What evidence may support Skinner’s theory?

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The fact that children imitate accents and colloquialisms may be a sign that imitation plays some role in language.

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Is this theory a nature or nurture theory?

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This theory is a heavily nurtured theory. It suggests that children have no innate ability to develop language.

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How do developmental milestones threaten the validity of Skinner’s theory?

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Developmental milestones and the fact that they all take place around the same time for most children suggest that there may be an innate biological component to language

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Which critic of Skinner’s theory proposed that there was an internal mechanism for learning language?

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Noam Chomsky proposed the nativist theory in response to B. F Skinner’s writings on language acquisition. He proposed that the ‘language acquisition device’ was responsible for language acquisition.

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What is the critical period of language acquisition?

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The critical period of language acquisition is thought to be around seven years of age.

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What happens if someone misses the critical period of language acquisition and how does it conflict with Skinner’s theory?

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If someone misses the critical period, they will never become fluent in a language. This suggests that language acquisition can’t be based on imitation alone, as otherwise people like Genie would easily develop language skills.

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What indicates that children may take a more active role in language development?

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Children attempt to assimilate new words into existing knowledge of linguistic rules. For example, children may understand how adding ‘ed’ onto words makes them past tense, so may say ‘fighted’ instead of ‘fought’, showing that they understand rules and attempt to use them independently of conditioning.

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What is Skinner's behaviourism theory?

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That behaviours and habits (including language) are learnt as reactions to stimuli and encouraged or discouraged through positive and negative reinforcement. 

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How is behaviour conditioning carried out?

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Through positive and negative reinforcement.

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What is positive reinforcement?

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Positive reinforcement is when a certain behaviour or action is rewarded with something like a smile, high five, or prize of some kind. This is done to encourage the action to be repeated for the same outcome.

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What is negative reinforcement?

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When an incorrect behaviour is discouraged by a negative reaction. This could be through no reaction or by not getting the desired effect, encouraging a different action or behaviour for the desired outcome.

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How is positive reinforcement used during language acquisition?

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If a child is learning to speak and says a word, the caregiver smiles, claps and encourages them to say it again. A positive reaction encourages the behaviour to be repeated.

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Does Skinner believe interaction is needed from a young age for language acquisition?

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Yes, if a child receives no interaction while learning to speak, they will never know what is correct and what isn't.

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How does the case of Genie Wiley support Skinner's theory of language acquisition?

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Genie never received any language conditioning when growing up and only started learning to talk when she was rescued at the age of 13. Then she experienced many language interactions and was encouraged to learn to speak.

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Where does Skinner's theory fit in the nature vs. nurture debate?

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Skinner's behaviourism approach fits in on the nurture side of the debate, stating that children need interaction and nurture from their caregivers in order to acquire language.

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What is the main opposing language acquisition theory to Skinner's behaviourism approach?

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Noam Chomsky's theory of innateness claims that humans have an innate skill for language learning while Skinner's theory claims that children need to be taught language.

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