Behaviorist theory of language development.

Discuss Skinner’s Verbal Behavior.
What is Behavioristic approach to language learning?
Describe the behaviorist theory of language development and provide some arguments against it.

Answer: Methodological behaviorism began as a reaction against the introspective psychology that dominated the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Behavioristic view of language acquisition simply claims that language development is the result of a set of habits. This view has normally been influenced by the general theory of learning described by the psychologist John B. Watson in 1923, and termed behaviorism. Behaviorism denies nativist accounts of innate knowledge as they are viewed as inherently irrational and thus unscientific. Behaviorists such as Watson and Skinner viewed knowledge as a repertoire of behavior. Knowledge is the product of interaction with the environment through stimulus-response conditioning.


Broadly speaking, stimulus (ST) — response (RE) learning works as follows. An event in the environment (the unconditioned stimulus, or UST) brings out an unconditioned response (URE) from an organism capable of learning. That response is then followed by another event appealing to the organism. That is, the organism’s response is positively reinforced (PRE). If the sequence UST –> URE –> PRE recurs a sufficient number of times, the organism will learnt how to associate its response to the stimulus with the reinforcement (CST). This will consequently cause the organism to give the same response when it confronts with the same stimulus. In this way, the response becomes a conditioned response (CRE).

The most risky part of the behavioristic view is perhaps the idea that all leaning, whether verbal (language) or non-verbal (general learning) takes place by means of forming habits. When language acquisition is taken into consideration, the theory claims that both Ll and L2 acquirers receive linguistic input from speakers in their environment, and positive reinforcement for their correct repetitions and imitations. As mentioned above, when language learners’ responses are reinforced positively, they acquire the language relatively easily.

The behaviorists see errors as first language habits interfering with the acquisition of second language habits. If there are similarities between the two languages, the language learners will acquire the target structures easily. If there are differences, acquisition will be more difficult. This approach is known as the contrastive analysis hypothesis (CAH). According to the hypothesis, the differences between languages can be used to reveal and predict all errors and the data obtained can be used in foreign/second language teaching for promoting a better acquisition environment.


These claims are strictly criticized in Chomsky’s “A Review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior”. Chomsky (1959) asserts that there is “neither empirical evidence nor any known argument to support any specific claim about the relative importance of feedback from the environment”.

Skinner’s view of language acquisition is a popular example of the naturist ideas. Behaviorism, as known by most of us, was passively accepted by the influential Bloomfieldian structuralist school of linguistics and produced some well-know applications in the field of foreign/second language teaching — for instance, the Audio lingual Method or the Army Method. The theory sees the language learner as a tabula rasa with no built-in knowledge. The theory and the resulting teaching methods failed due to the fact that imitation and simple S-R connections only cannot explain acquisition and provide a sound basis for language teaching methodology.