B.F. Skinners Normal Language Development Theories

B.F. Skinners Normal Language Development Theories




July 26, 2011

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B.F. Skinners Normal Language Development Theories

Development of language starts at an early age in the human life during when the child begins to learn language from people around it when they talk and children mimicry (pavelpsycho.blogspot.com, 2010). A child’s language development starts as very simple to complex considering that children are born without knowing any language and only learn the one spoken around them. A child’s language will start with babbling sounds until they are able to make meaningful words as they grow bigger and learn more words. Normally language development will be because of recalling simple words though without meaning associated to them until the word is repeated several times directed to a specific event or task as the child grows and realizes that the word is associated to the particular event (pavelpsycho.blogspot.com, 2010). Several theories have been put across by several authors such as Skinner, and Chomsky to explain language development in a human being. Skinner’s theory is behavioral and attributes views language as a learned behavior just as other skills are learned out of a habit, encouraged by reinforcement a child may receive. On the other hand, Chomsky’s theory assumes that children have a language acquisition device that helps them accomplish language development. Skinner’s behavioral theory assumes that “… language is learned through operant conditioning (reinforcement and imitation). This perspective sides with the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate,” (pavelpsycho.blogspot.com, 2010). The main notion behind skinner’s behavioral theory is that just like any other behavior acquired by a human being, language is acquired the same way and considered a as a result of a habit learned and influenced by the environment (Hill, 2001).

According to B.F. Skinner human and animal behavior are determined by learning and reinforcement that help all species acquire new skills that depend on the environment an organism is placed. Language development depends on behaviorist theory that is used by children to understand meaning of words and through use of reinforcement and punishment; children are able to learn meaning of words and things around them (niu.edu, 2003). According to Skinner, all language was a behavior that is developed in the same way as skills are developed stating that a sentence is a part of behavior chain with elements that provide conditional stimulus of the following constituent (niu.edu, 2003). He stated that language response was based on four factors, which are reinforcement, stimulus control, deprivation and aversive stimulation (niu.edu, 2003). His notion is that language development is based on behavioral influences that affect the learning of a person, such as in his experiments on rats with a button to get food and another giving shock (McLeod, 2007). Such reinforcement and punishment gives meaning to things, which is the basic language learning method. According to him language acquisition and development is seen as a learned behavior resulting from interaction with the environment. “The interaction of these things in a child’s environment would lead to particular associations, the basis of all language,” (niu.edu, 2003).

Skinner further purports that language can be put into categories depending o how it was reinforced citing that there are five types of speech. The first being  echoic behavior, which is the basic primary form of verbal behavior of learners of language that include repeating of utterances such as a parent pointing to an object and mentioning it then asking the child to repeat. The second type is Mands, which is a short form of demands are words reinforced by increase of scarcity where a child would ask for a certain thing when it felt the need such as when thirsty, the child could say milk. More still, directive words also count under this type such as stand or sit. The third type of speech is Tact, which is a short form of contact that looks similar although tacts are made when there is no deprivation that occurs when a mand is satisfied. This is to state that when demand is satisfied with reinforcement, the need is satisfied and when the contact is reinforced, there is satisfaction (niu.edu, 2003). The fourth type of speech is interverbals, which are utterances not designed to provide information but for purpose of interaction in a speech such as saying please or thank you (Petursdottir, 2006). The fifth type is autoclitics which are the internal thoughts of a person that skinner also claims are reinforced and they affect the verbal behavior of a child even in the future. He tried explaining the complex human communication behavior using these types of speech that he claims are reinforced (niu.edu, 2003).

According to Mill (2006), “A child acquires verbal behavior when relatively unpattterned vocalizations, selectively reinforced, gradually assume forms which produce appropriate consequences in a given verbal community.” He further says that it is hard or impossible to have stimulus to evoke language or verbal stimulus is not educed, hence reinforcing a certain response in a child one has to wait until it occurs (Mill, 2006). Skinner views or places the child as the operant conditioning whose indiscriminately occurring behavior is reinforced by another probably the mother by selecting what makes sense (Mill, 2006). For instance, when a child is babbling and happens to mention a word that makes sense ‘do’ the parent can choose to interpret it as doll, and passes the doll to the child as the reinforcement for the word. The next time the word is repeated the same happens and the child starts to put meaning to the word and when it wants the doll, it repeats the word and the mother can say the word for the child mimicry and insist on the full word ‘doll’. As the child develops, the mother may insist on telling the child to say, “Pass doll” so that the child can learn making simple sentences and as the child learns more words, he or she is able to make bigger sentences all the time. Skinners affirms that use of operant conditioning where a child gets reinforcement for every word spoken such as mentioning something they like when presented acting as the stimulus to saying the word while if they receive it acts as the reinforcement. The operant conditioning suggests that only the words recognized as making sense were top be rewarded while those that did not were not rewarded. “in skinner’s view, children would gradually begin to use the only those words or utterances for which they had been reinforced,’ (Keenan $ Evans, 2009). Using such reinforcement parents or guardians are in a position to mould the linguistic behavior or skills of their children and over a period of time the children would start to make more complex sentences and eventually make speech. Skinner’s theory describes the way in which children put words together to make correct language (Keenan $ Evans, 2009).

Skinner argues that learning of language in children is best in places or events they are familiar to especially the background of their social interaction with guardians or caregivers. The familiar social background helps the child in interpreting what their caregivers or guardians say (Butterworth & Harris, 1994). For instance with similar routines everyday, the child gains knowledge of social context under which the child is able to derive meaning of language from the repeated events and routines. For instance, when it is the routine of the mother to say, “ come for milk,” all the time she intends to feed the baby with milk, and puts the milk in certain bottle every time, over time the child will get used to the routine and derive meaning of the simple sentence from the routine. He also suggests that functional properties such as toys and tools contribute a big part in verbal behavior since they control responses of the child (Stemmer, 1990). This way the child is able to learn and soon, the child can start imitating the mother’s words and such other routines such as bath time while still repeating the same thing every time you repeat the routine helps the child derive meaning and develop language skills (Butterworth & Harris, 1994). Using such reinforcement parents or guardians are in a position to mould the linguistic behavior or skills of their children and over a period of time the children would start to make more complex sentences and eventually make speech. Skinner’s theory describes the way in which children put words together to make correct language

Skinner suggests that children become better listeners through learning how to say words that they hear (Schlinger, 2008). Skinner says that learning process is an automatic process that conditions itself, and this gives listeners an ability of reacting to verbal stimulus that have conditioned reflexes that encourage taking the right action or the intended one (Skinner 1957). He also suggests that watching an even as it is explained has the effect of setting nonverbal behavior to respond to such stimuli. This according to Skinner (1957), is a contingency described as automatic such as two paired stimuli which will have the effects of nonverbal behavior such as doing something right and also achieves the effect of establishing a verbal stimuli that makes the listener an effective speaker (Skinner 1957). He further says that structures of sentences are learned individually with help of the right incidents that help the children derive meaning from relevant terms (Stemmer, 1990). “The contingencies establish the control of the responses by certain stimuli. Establishing stimulus control frequently has generic effects; the responses are evoked not only by identical but also by similar stimuli,” (Stemmer, 1990).

Skinner’s theory is considered a learning perspective since it believes that people have to learn through repetition of the words of a language and without this, one may not learn. He says that children learn their first language through imitating and gaining skills from adults and receiving reinforcement or punishment adds to their progress. However, this view is opposed by Chomsky who believes that children do not have to be taught their language since they every human being is born with the ability of learning language. Chomsky says that in every human’s brain there is an ability of learning language without having to be taught since through listening as a child grows develops meaning of language spoken around him or her, citing that people do learn their language naturally without having to be taught (Chomsky 1967). He further says that people do not need to be told the meaning of everything they do since they have an ability of interpreting what others talk (Petursdottir, 2006).

However, when it comes to the right grammar, one has to learn from others or have to study. Chomsky further affirms his assertion by saying that in a place where two languages are spoken children are able to learn and differentiate the two languages naturally without having top be taught or study. This is so for young children who are at a better chance of learning languages than adults who might need to study to acquire a second language. Chomsky criticizes skinner’ theory by saying that, “human brain contains a language acquisition device (LAD) which automatically analyzes the components of speech a child hears.” I support this theory. The human brain has special function, unlikely other animals,” (yoshiito.tripod.com, n.d.). Were it not so, according to Skinner’s theory, animals too would have the ability to talk if it solely depended on learning since animals too can learn. This affirms Chomsky’s theory that only human beings have the ability of speaking that is born with them; therefore children have the ability to learn language naturally because it is born in them. However, both theories acknowledge that there has to be aid for development of language that is gained from the adults who correct the children who are bound to make many mistakes that diminish as they grow up. Skinner’s theory is quite applicable when it comes to learning an extra language at an advanced age or beyond the critical age when one has greater potential of learning new language. At this point one has to study through repetition of words and sentences to develop the needed skills. On the other hand, Chomsky’s theory cannot be used on its own for such purposes where one needs to acquire another language at a later age since one cannot learn it naturally like a child will do (Lana, 2002).

There have been more critiques of Skinner’s theory where most of them say that it is not possible for guardians and parents to reinforce the utterances of a child citing that children do not rely on their parents or guardians all the time, yet everyday from else where they learn new utterances. More still, critiques cite that parents do not reward or punish according to the theory but children still learn the right words and correct grammar, still considering that the main assertion of the theory is reinforcement and punishment, which most parents do not do. “Human beings define right and wrong relative to their conditioned experienced of pleasure and pain, respectively. A certain action, if it receives a painful response, will be avoided, while those with a pleasurable response, or a reward, will be considered good,” (Johnson, 2010). This is to mean that children learn the right or wrong through reinforcement and punishment, which is true, but considering language, this might not hold since children will still learn the right and wrong words even without or without punishment. Many critiques ay that the theory fits behavior of a child rather than language development (Barbera, & Rasmussen, 2007).

Skinners theory is based on the learning of a child and language development is just a habit developed like any other skill through reinforcement and punishment (Normand, 2009). It suggests further that children develop their skills through contingencies or incidents that happen around them everyday as they grow up. For instance, when a child is looking for a ball and has already learned to say “ball” and “mommy”, and mommy happens to be holding the ball, if dad says, “mommy is holding the ball,” the child will connect through the two words that he or she knows and looks at mommy. This way the child can learn the word hold as it is used and with time get its meaning and learn how to connect words together to make sentences (Stemmer, 1990). This are the contingencies that Skinner suggests are crucial in developing the language skills of a child that starts early. The theory has had its critics especially from the cognitive psychologists who feel that the theory considers language development a habit like any other while they feel that all human beings are born with capabilities of learning  language, though all theories do agree that it is aided by adults who since the children have to listen to learn (Moxley, 2005).



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