Essay on Behaviourism

7 pages
1798 words
Middlebury College
Type of paper: 
Literature review
This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Behaviourism is regarded as one of the oldest theoretical approaches of understanding language acquisition. In behaviorism, cognitive factors are not involved in the acquisition of language. This learning theory is associated with B.F. Skinner who examines learning as a process of positive and negative reinforcement (Felicia, 2008). The theory looks at learning as the formation of stimulus-response associations as via habit formation which is formed as a result of practice and reinforcement (Johnson & Johnson, 1998).

Based on experiments conducted on animals, behaviorists explain that language is acquired when a child comes in contact with the environment. The theory has its foundations in three basic tenets: the environment, habit formation, and conditioning (Tahriri, 2012). The term environment constitutes anything exterior to the organism while habit formation is based on the importance of a given kind of sense data needed to form or execute a particular habit. Conditioning occurs as a consequence of three-stage process: stimulus, response, and reinforcement.

In behaviorism, the environment plays a dominant role in learning while organism role is regarded as insignificant. Skinner (1957), in his explanation of behaviorism and language, theorized that first language learning occurs through a process of positive and negative reinforcement. Therefore, exposure to the target language data is a critical feature shaping language acquisition on a stimulus-response basis.

B.F. Skinner explains that children are motivated to replicate the behavior and language of the primary caregivers when they are positively reinforced through gratification of needs. In language learning, the children are passively involved in language acquisition as they only receive cues from cues from the environment. The competence achieved by learners of a language is also determined and correlated to the amount of exposure to a language. Additionally, language learning is more of a skill than knowledge and, therefore, children exposed to a lot of language learn more skills. Interaction of children with caregivers and parents provide a model for children to imitate. These imitations are encouraged when children receive positive adult reinforcement.

Pros of behaviorism

Experiments conducted on animals support the role of behaviorism in language learning.

Cons of behaviorism

Those who are against behaviorism and its explanation of behavior argue that the feedback provided by the caregivers do not always build the language of the children. For instance, caregivers may positively reinforce grammatically non-standard utterances provided that the meaning is intact. Behaviourism has also been criticised for its failure to explain overextension and overgeneralization (such as runned) since caregivers do not speak that way. Moreover, behaviorism cannot account for the rapid way in which children master the language. Additionally, the Wug test (Gleason, 1958) shows that language is not necessarily learned through imitation. In Wug test, children were told that a mythical creature in a picture was known as a wug. After that, they were asked to give the name of such two creatures. Shockingly, the children had no difficulty in replying and use the correct plural form wugs.' This shows that most children are aware of grammar due to certain internalized rules.

Furthermore, language is based grammatical rules and structures which cannot be learned through simple imitation of utterances. Noteworthy, all children pass through the same developmental milestone of language acquisition irrespective of whether or not the child receive reinforcement. Also, the inability of children to repeat what a parent or a caregiver says, especially if the utterance has a structure that the child has not used before, indicates that language learning is not a product of modeling.

Nativist theory (Chomsky 1957)

Nativists hold the view that language acquisition under innate control. The nativist approach to language acquisition was coined by Chomsky who sought to account for language acquisition from an innateness perspective. Chomsky posited that all babies are born having some sort of a language acquisition device (LAD), an unconscious mental model of how language works. According to Chomsky, this device enables children to develop language rules depending on the input they receive. The grammatical rules are found in the LAD as natural blueprints. The presence of innate knowledge of the structure of language in babies is universal because all languages are based on the same basic structure. The universality of language is supported by the similarity of grammatical categories (such as nouns and verbs). LAD has been associated with rapid learning of native language in babies.

Chomsky agrees, to some extent, with Skinner agrees on the role of environment in shaping language. But unlike Skinner, Chomsky explains that the role of environment is minimal because it only acts as a trigger. In his view, environment has some role in language learning, because if the child does not hear any language, he or she will not learn the first language. However, Chomsky emphasized that the role of environment is marginal and most of the real work is carried out by the child himself.

In their explanation of language acquisition, nativists provide certain arguments to support their position. Some of these arguments include the fast rate of acquisition, lack of negative evidence,' and poverty of the stimulus.' The arguments emphasize that the environment cannot adequately account for the primary factor in language learning process. Therefore, the proponents argue that there must be certain innate mechanisms which instantiate linguistic properties.

Because of the innateness of language acquisition, children are capable of providing the plural of wug even when they have never heard of it before. Children also need to internalize standard grammatical rules to apply to new examples. Support for Chomsky has been demonstrated through childrens sensitivity to human speech sounds, uniqueness of human syntax and grammar, childrens failure to imitate syntax, childrens creation or formation of language they have never heard, the ability of healthy children to rapidly learn language when exposed to it, and difficulties in children with genetic disorders to acquire language. Moreover, all children learn language at approximately similar age and also acquire elements in the same order.

Pros of nativist theory

Nativist theory of language development is supported by the existence of universal grammar. Universal grammar means that most of the worlds languages have the same fundamental structures and can only be transformed into other languages by following specific rules. Nativist theory is also supported by the view that in the absence of innate predisposition for language, children cannot learn complex speech patterns in their environment.

Cons of nativist theory

Those who are against nativist theory argue that the theory cannot be empirically proved. Other opponents argue that the theory is not falsifiable and thus not scientific. Also, LAD has also not been found to be located in a specific brain region. Moreover, another argument against nativist theory is that language development occurs slowly and gradually and not quickly as nativists predict it should happen. Lastly, the idea of universal grammar may not apply to all the spoken languages of the world.

Is there a good compromise?

The childrens physical environment is comprised of parents, caregivers, siblings, and other individuals. A child is very likely to imitate or replicate the behavior and language of individuals surrounding him as they receive cues from cues from the environment. Therefore, the role of behaviorist theory cannot be ignored when in language acquisition. Similarly, the existence of universal grammar is proof that language learning is innate. Because both nativist and behaviorist theories have cons supported by evidence, a good compromise is a new theory which combines both the behavioral and nativist aspects in explanation of language acquisition in children.

Components of Language

Research on language acquisition has led to the identification of five basic elements of language: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. These components are universal to all languages. As language acquisition progresses across the components of language, these components increase in quantity. For instance, increased number of words, length of sentences, and sounds are achieved. Also, the child gradually refines and understand subtle and increased the complexity of language usage (such as the use of caught instead of catched).


Phonology can be defined as the study of speech structure (such as the nature of basic speech units and the correct ways of pronunciation) within a language. It can also be defined as the process by which a child learn how to pronounce the words of his native language. In phonology, phonemes are the smallest units of a sound that form a particular language.

In phonological acquisition, the child needs to learn the speech sounds (consonants and vowels). A child is also required to learn how different sounds of speech join to form words as well as the vocabulary (the words) of a particular language. Additionally, a baby is supposed to know how each word should be pronounced (the mental representation of the meaning of words). Therefore, it can be concluded that phonological acquisition is comprised of two steps. The first step involves articulation of consonants, vowels, syllables, and words while the second step involves representation of words.

It is worth noting that a child undergoes different stages of language acquisition as he grows. The stage is known as babbling, which occurs around the six months of age. The process seems to be innate because even children born deaf go through this babbling stage. Babbling is a manifestation of experimentation with phonemes. In this stage, the children the sounds they can produce. This stage is characterized by the childs ability to produce any phoneme from any language in the world (McEntarffer & Weseley, 2007).

The childs first words appear at the age of one. Between the ages of one and 18 months, the child gradually acquires about 50 words and produce the first combination of words. A babys first words are characterized by words with simple syllables and reduplication such as papa, mama,' and wawa.' In the first words, there are limited sounds and words characterized by variable pronunciations.


Morphology refers to the study of word forms or the internal structure of words and the process of word formation. This level of language is characterized by morphemes, the smallest units which carry meaning such as walk, walk-king, walks, walk-ed. Morphological knowledge is critical in the building of vocabulary and manifests the smallest building units for comprehension.


Syntax refers to the rules used to combine words and their most basic meaningful units to create sentences while syntactic development refers to the childs approach to learning these rules. Five stages of syntactic development have been identified. The first stage begins after children have spoken 50 to 100 individual words and are characterized by two-word utterances such as the ball (Pressley & McCormick, 2007). According to Roger Brown (1973), this stage is known as telegraphic speech because it only has important words which convey a lot of meaning. Noteworthy, the two words formed by the child do not just occur randomly but occur in an order similar to that of an adult speaker, except that the sentence has fewer morphemes. T...

Have the same topic and dont`t know what to write?
We can write a custom paper on any topic you need.

Request Removal

If you are the original author of this essay and no longer wish to have it published on the website, please click below to request its removal: