Important theories of learning

What are the important theories of learning? Compare the theories with one another.

Important theories of learning

Answer: A great many theories regarding language development in human beings have been proposed in the past and still being proposed in the present time. Such theories have generally arisen out of major disciplines such as psychology and linguistics. Psychological and linguistic thinking have profoundly influenced one another and the outcome of language acquisition theories alike. Although there are many different approaches to learning, there are three basic types of learning theory:

1. Behaviorist or Empiricist,
2. Cognitive Constructivist or Nativist, and
3. Social Constructivist or the Environmentalist or the Functionalist.

We can outline the basic differences of the theories in the following table:

Behaviorism Cognitive Constructivism Social Constructivism

Repertoire of behavioral responses to environmental stimuli

Knowledge systems of cognitive structures are actively constructed by learners based on existing structures.


Knowledge is socially constructed.

Passive absorption of predefined body of knowledge by learner. Promoted by repetition and positive reinforcement.

Active assimilation and accommodation of new information to existing cognitive structures. Discovery by learners.

Integration of students into knowledge community. Collaborative assimilation and accommodation of new information.


Extrinsic, reward and punishment (positive and negative reinforces).


Intrinsic. Learners set their own goals and motivate themselves to learn.

Intrinsic and extrinsic. Learning goals and motives are determined both by learners and extrinsic rewards provided by the knowledge community.


Correct behavioral responses are transmitted by the teacher and absorbed by the students.

The teacher facilitates learning by providing an environment that promotes discovery and assimilation/accommodation.


Collaborative learning is facilitated and guided by the teacher. Group work.

Some theories of language learning tend to emphasize genetic mechanisms in explaining language acquisition. Behavioral theories (e.g., Hull, Skinner, Thorndike) argue that association, reinforcement, and imitation are the primary factors in the acquisition of language. Cognitive theories (e.g., Ausubel, Lancla. Schank) suggest that schema, rule structures, and meaning are the distinctive characteristic of language learning. Memory processes have been singled out as the basis for language comprehension (e. g., Anderson, Craik & Lockhart, Paivio). Vygotsky argues that all cognitive processes, including those involved in language, arise from social interaction.

Language acquisition theories have basically centered around “nurture” and “nature” distinction or on “empiricism” and “nativism”. The doctrine of empiricism holds that all knowledge comes from experience, ultimately from our interaction with the environment through our reasoning or senses. Empiricism, in this sense, can be contrasted to nativism, which holds that at least some knowledge is not acquired through interaction with the environment, but is genetically transmitted and innate. Some theoreticians have based their theories on environmental factors while others believed that it is the innate factors that determine the acquisition of language. It is, however, important to note that neither naturists nor environmentalists disagree thoroughly with the nativist ideas nor do nativists with the nurtures ideas. Only the weight they lay on the environmental and innate factors is relatively little or more.

Theories of Social interaction or Environmentalist theories of language acquisition hold that an organism’s nurture, or experience, are of more significance to development than its nature or inborn contributions. Yet they do not completely reject the innate factors. Behaviorist and neo-behaviorist stimulus-response learning theories are the best known examples. Even though theories have lost their effect partially because of Chomsky’s, intelligent review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (Chomsky, 1959), their effect has not been so little when we consider the present cognitive approach as an offshoot of behaviorism.

The nativist theories, on the other hand, assert that much of the capacity for language learning in human is „innate’. It is part of the genetic makeup of human species and is nearly independent of any particular experience which may occur after birth. Thus, the nativists claim that language acquisition is innately determined and that we are born with a built-in device which predisposes us to acquire language. This mechanism predisposes us to a systematic perception of language around us. Eric Lenneberg, in his attempt to explain language development in the child, assumed that language is a species – specific behavior and it is ‘biologically determined’. Another important point as regards the innatist account is that nativists do not deny the importance of environmental stimuli, but they say language acquisition cannot be accounted for on the basis of environmental factors only. There must be some innate guide to achieve this end.