Meaning in Behavioral Analysis

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Understood variably, meaning is one of the most exalted concepts in human thought, writing, and discourse. Human life itself is discussed in terms of its meaning. Philosophy--one of the highest forms of intellectual enquiry--is defined as an enquiry into the nature and meaning of life and the universe. We question or try to understand the meaning of individuals' actions, government policies, scientific data or theories, philosophical or everyday concepts, a happy or a tragic incidence, or anything that is encountered in life. But it is the meaning of meaning in language that has drawn the greatest intellectual resources from philosophers, linguists, psychologists, poets, literary critics, thinkers in general, and philologists who preceded modern linguists. Speech-language pathologists have both a theoretical and applied interest in meaning because it permeates almost all of their clinical work.

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) have successfully used applied behavioral techniques in their clinical work. Such applied behavioral techniques as modeling, prompting, shaping, positive reinforcement, differential reinforcement, extinction, time-out, response cost, corrective feedback, among others, are the evidence-based treatment procedures the SLPs use in modifying disorders of speech, language, fluency, voice, and swallowing (Hegde, 1998). Behavioral treatment procedures have been extensively researched and their effects experimentally documented in remediating communication disorders in both children and adults (Duffy, 2005; Hegde, 1998; Hegde & Maul, 2006; Pena-Brooks & Hegde, 2007; Rosenbek, LaPointe, & Wertz, 1989). Although the behavioral treatment techniques used in speech and language training are based on Skinner's experimenta1 analysis of behavior (Skinner, 1953) and the resulting operant conditioning techniques, academic training of SLPs do not seem to include the behavioral (operant) view of verbal behavior to any significant extent (See Table 1). Consequently, SLPs' understanding of speech and language as empirical phenomena on the one hand and of speech and language as targets of treatment on the other are conceptually and methodologically inconsistent. Experimentally validated behavioral treatment procedures are typically grafted on to conceptually inconsistent linguistic, mentalistic, and rationalistic theories that are incapable of experimental verification.

Perhaps it is believed that the behavioral approach may be good for treatment, but not for understanding what language is and how it is learned. Child language treatment research does not support this belief, however. Consistent with Skinner's assertion that linguistic (structural) categories do not correspond to functional response classes, some treatment research studies have shown that grammatical categories and distinctions prove themselves invalid when experimental manipulations are done to treat children's language disorders. Even such basic grammatical-structural distinctions as verbal auxiliary-copula and subject noun-object noun do not hold good under experimental manipulations inherent to treatment (Hegde, 1980; Hegde, & McConn, 1978; Hegde, Noll, & Pecora, 1979; McReynolds & Engmann, 1974). Furthermore, it is possible to entertain a conceptually consistent model of verbal behavior (language) and its teaching, but this possibility is realized only with an appreciation of the view that language is behavior. Contrary to what mentalistic linguists argue, the behavioral analysis offers a sophisticated and natural science-based analysis of all aspects of language, including what is believed to be the linguist's monopoly--grammar (Skinner, 1957). In this paper, I address not grammar, but meaning, which linguists believe is the stuff the language is made of and lies beyond behavioral explanation. To understand the behavioral analysis of meaning, it is essential to understand the Skinnerian analysis of verbal behavior. …