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The psycological theory behind behaviourist linguistics was founded by J. B. Watson, which was
basically a native language learning. The major principle of the behaviourist theory rests on the
analysis of human behaviour in observable stimulus-response interaction and the association
between them.
According to the behaviourist theory, language learning is a process of habit formation that
involves a period of trial and error where the child tries and fails to use correct language until it
succeeds. Infants also have human role models in their environment that provide the stimuli and
rewards required for operant conditioning. For example, if a child starts babblings, which
resembles appropriate words, then his or her babbling will be rewarded by a parent or loved one
by positive reinforcement such as a smile or clap. Since the babblings were rewarded, this
reward reinforces further articulations of the same sort into groupings of syllables and words in a
similar situation. Children also utter words because they cause adults to give them the things they
want and they will only be given what they want once the adult has trained or shaped the child
through reinforcement and rewards speech close to that of adult speech. Before long children
will take on the imitation or modeling component of Skinner's theory of language acquisition in
which children learn to speak by copying the utterances heard around them and by having their
responses strengthened by the repetitions, corrections and other reactions that adults provide.
However, before children can begin to speak, they first start by listening to the sounds in their
environment for the first years of their life. Gradually, the child learns to associate certain sounds
with certain situations such as the sound of endearment a mother produces when feeding her
child. These sounds then become pleasurable for the child on their own without being
accompanied by food and eventually the child will attempt to imitate these sounds to invite the
attention of his mother or another adult. If these sounds resemble that of adult language the
mother will respond with reward and the operant conditioning process begins. This, then,
obviously means that behaviourist theory is a theory of stimulus-response psychology.
Through a trial-and-error process, in which acceptable utterances are reinforced by
comprehension and approval, and unacceptable utterances are inhibited by the lack of reward, he
gradually learns to make finer and finer discriminations until his utterances approximate more
and more closely the speech of the community in which he is growing up. To put it in other
words, children develop a natural affinity to learn a language of their social surroundings whose
importance both over language learning and teaching must never be underestimated. In this
respect, behaviourist theory stresses the fact that human and animal learning is a process of habit
formation. A highly complex learning task, according to this theory may be learned by being
broken down into small habits. These form correct or incorrect responses, which are rewarded or
punished respectively. Thus, it is clear that the acquisition of learning in infancy is governed by
the acquisition of other habits.
Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990)
“Language, as a behaviour, is a set of habits acquired by operant conditioning and
The extreme behaviouristic stand-point is characterized by B. F. Skinner’s well-known study,
Verbal Behaviour (1957) which applied a functional analysis approach to analyze language
behaviour in terms of their natural occurrence in response to environmental circumstances and
the effects they have on human interactions. In his publication, he differentiated between two
types of verbal responses that a child makes;
 Verbal behaviour that is reinforced by the child receiving something it wants.
 Verbal behaviour caused by imitating others.
 Language is a subset of other learned behaviours.
 It forms a set of associations between meaning and word, word and phoneme, and
statement and response.
 It is learned or conditioned through association between a stimulus and the following
 It is a verbal behaviour modified by the environment.
 The ‘how’ of language is more important than the ‘what’ of language form.
 A child learns language “when relatively un-patterned vocalizations, selectively
reinforced, gradually assume forms which produce appropriate consequences”.

Skinner viewed babies as ‘empty vessels’ which language had to be ‘put into’. He also viewed
language acquisition as a cognitive behaviour. Skinner's behaviour learning approach relies on
the components of classical conditioning, which involves unconditioned and conditioned stimuli,
and particularly the elements of operant conditioning.
As a pioneer of behaviourism, he accounted for language development by means of
environmental influence. Skinner argued that children learn a language based on behaviourist
reinforcement principles by associating words with meanings. Correct utterances are positively
reinforced when the child realizes the communicative value of words and phrases.
Skinner based his whole theory of language acquisition and speech realization on the
recognizable external forms of what Chomsky terms ‘input and output’ and makes no allowance
for any internal process of the organism. Stimulus and reward/punishment form the input and the
verbal operant/response forms the output.
Operant conditioning is a type of conditioning in which the strength of the stimulus-response
bond determines the probability of the occurrence of a certain response. All behaviour is learned
or operant. The complex linguistic behaviours represent chains or combinations of various
stimulus-response sequences. It states that behaviour is modified or changed by the events that
follow or are contingent upon that behaviour; if a particular response is reinforced, it then
becomes habitual. Thus, children produce linguistic responses that are reinforced, and lose those
that are left out.
Reinforcers- Any event that increases the probability of occurrence of a preceding behaviour is
a reinforcer. There are two kinds of reinforcers; positive and negative.
Positive reinforcer has benefits for the person receiving it i.e. praising, repetition, frequent
exposure, material reward, etc. Negative reinforcer has no value to the person receiving it. It
causes the recipient to try to ‘escape’ from it i.e. physical punishment, discomfort, criticism, and
Complex behaviours are learned by:
1. Chaining – a sequence of behaviour is trained in such a way that each step serves as a
stimulus for the next.
2. Shaping – a single behaviour is gradually modified by reinforcement of ever-closer
(successive) approximations of the final behaviour.
Thus, language results from the active role of the environment. The learner is secondary to the
process. Once acquired, a behaviour requires only occasional reinforcement to be strengthened
and maintained. Speech sounds that are ignored are produced less frequently and eventually
It is clear that language learning and its development, for the behaviourists, is a matter of
conditioning by means of imitation, practice, reinforcement, and habituation, which constitute
the paces of language acquisition. Apparently, behaviourism has its shortcomings, but it cannot
be denied that learning process is for the most part a behaviourist processing, a verbal behaviour.
Here are a few limitations and loopholes of this theory;
 Children will utter words that even adults do not say.
 Children would not know the duality property of language.
 Children would not know syntax.
 Retention of negative language.
 No reinforcement on abstract ideas.
 Highly dependent on adult control.
 The rate of social influence on learning is not satisfactorily explained.
 It is highly unlikely for learning to be the same for each individual.
 The main strategies of this theory can only be true for the early stages of learning which
take place when the kids are in infancy and early childhood period.
 Habit formation exercises may not naturally promote intrinsically-oriented language

Name: Maryam Butt

Roll No. 15