Thursday, May 26, 2011

Behaviorism and Language Acquisition

Read the first chapter of any Psych 100 book and you will be familiar with B. F. Skinner and behaviorism. Skinner was a radical behaviorist, he believed that we all had a reinforcement history, and we all developed response patterns to things that were positively reinforced in us, as well as adverse responses to things that had been negatively reinforced. (If you don't know what conditioning is, then check out the Wikipedia article on classical conditioning.) This was his explanation from everything to how the nature of societies developed to how we started to speak. He also likened cognitive science to creation science (asshole).Therefore, when someone asks you "Hey Jim how are you today?" your response of "I'm well thanks for asking Dick" is a conditioned response... well to Skinner anyways.

There is no set number of stimuli in this painting (artist: James Fowler)
Before Noam Chomsky was known for his political writings, or known for anything for that matter; in 1959 as a linguist, he wrote a review of Skinner's book Verbal Behavior. In the review he made several points against behaviorism. The first being that there is no set number of stimuli in certain objects, such as artwork. When any one person that sees a painting is bound to say or think anything in response to it, there is no way to record the amount of different responses. Second, Chomsky argued that our responses to new sentences come about because we have "internalised the grammer of our language". Skinner had said our responce to a new sentence would come about from a sentence that sounded simmilar to it.

We know today that Chomsky is right because we have solid proof of the internalization of grammar; the development of linguistic abilities in children. Children make up grammar rules that they could have never learned on their own. Irregular plurals ("sheeps", "fishs", "tooths") for example, are all common speech errors made by children, and reflect the fact that they are making grammar rules and inferences about the language they are learning as they go along. This all happens in the critical period, a time in everyone's life where they acquire the language(s) that they are immersed in. Tomorrow's post will be on the critical period.


  1. Absolutely fascinating. My language tutor was talking to me along these lines the other day, and I have to say, it blows my mind a little bit.

  2. Alexis: Cool, if there is anything in particular you would like to hear about let me know.

  3. I remember reading somethign about how language affects how we percieve objects - English doesn't assign gender to nouns, but German and Spanish do, so anything that is given the gender pre- or suffix is decribed with adjective associated with that gender.

    So interesting (:

  4. Beans: I actually know a decent amount about that! I've already got a couple of posts that I want to do lined up but I can write about that after I am through with those!

  5. Thanks. That was a good read. Enjoyed it.

  6. skinner... oh man ive heard that guys name way too many times