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Behavioral Theory

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. However, behavioural theories such as BF Skinner's language theory have certain limitations attached to them. 

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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. However, behavioural theories such as BF Skinner's language theory have certain limitations attached to them.

Skinner's Theory Of Behaviourism

B F Skinner was a psychologist who specialised in behaviour in language theory. 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, StudySmarterFig 1. - The theorist BF Skinner proposed the behavioural theory.

Behaviourism Learning Theory

So what is Skinner's theory of language? 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 the language and rely on operant conditioning to form and improve their understanding and use of it. The behavioural theory believes that children are born 'tabula rasa' - as a 'blank slate'.

Behavioural Theory definition

To summarise based on Skinner's behavioural theory:

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

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'). They 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, flowchart showing process of operant conditioning, StudySmarter

Fig 2: operant conditioning is the reinforcement of behaviour through either positive or negative reinforcement.

Behavioural Theory: evidence and limitations

When looking at behavioural theory, it is important to consider its strengths and weaknesses. This can help us to evaluate the theory as a whole and be critical (analytical) of language theory.

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 caregivers don't tend to correct language use but truthfulness. If a child says something which is grammatically wrong but truthful the caregiver is likely to praise the child. But if the child says something which is grammatically accurate but untrue, the caregiver is likely to respond negatively.

For a caregiver, 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 skinner's behavioural theory.

Limitations of Skinner's theory

Skinner's behavioural theory has numerous limitations and some of its assumptions have been disproven or questioned by other theorists and researchers.

Developmental Milestones

Contrary to Skinner's behavioural 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, a child could call every four-legged animal a 'dog' if they learned the word for dog before the names of other animals. Or they could say 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.

Thus, BF Skinner's behavioural theory is a useful language acquisition theory for considering child development alongside cognitive and nativist theory.

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.


References

  1. Fig. 1. Msanders nti, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Frequently Asked Questions about Behavioral Theory

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

Behaviourism is a learning theory that proposes our behaviours and language are learned from the environment and through conditioning. 

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.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What theory did BF Skinner propose?

Skinner popularised the idea of radical behaviorism. True or false?

Skinner's theory proposes that language develops as a result of children trying to _________ their caregivers or those around them.

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