Language and Grammar: A Behavioral Analysis
Hegde, M. N., The Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis
Speech-language pathologists' (SLPs') academic study of language is heavily influenced by linguistic and cognitive viewpoints. A majority of textbooks and writings familiar to SLPs explore in greater detail the linguistic and structural view of language and offer only a limited summary of the behavioral view whose concepts and implications are not carried throughout the text. Most SLPs are well versed in the phonologic, morphologic, syntactic, and pragmatic structures of language but are not equally well versed in the functional units that are basic to Skinner's (1957) analysis. Nonetheless, SLP's treatment methods are mostly behavioral (Hegde, 1998, 2008a). Inevitably, this has led to a conceptually inconsistent model of language and treatment of language disorders.
Chomsky's (1959) critical review of Skinner's (1957) book--Verbal Behavior--is better known than the book itself. Most students and clinicians seem to be unaware of the invalidity of Chomsky's criticism or the competent responses given to his negative review (e.g., Anderson, 1991; MacCorquodale, 1969, 1970; McLeish & Martin, 1975; Palmer, 2006; Richelle, 1976). Rejoinders to his review have pointed out that Chomsky poorly understood Skinner's Verbal Behavior, behavioral methodology, and behaviorism. Chomsky's misunderstanding of Skinner's book and concepts was so severe that it "would prompt most examination graders to read no further" (Richelle, 1976, p. 209). Chomsky frequently attributed views of other psychologists to Skinner who had unequivocally repudiated them. In a questionable case of scholarship, Chomsky repeatedly misquoted Skinner (Adelman, 2007). More than four decades after he wrote the review, Chomsky was still a critic of Skinner, and with the same distorted understanding of Skinner's work (Virues-Ortega, 2006).
A commonly held assumption among most linguists, and SLPs who follow them, is that Skinner's Verbal Behavior has faded into history. The fact, however, is that research on verbal behavior and treatment of verbal behavior disorders based on Skinnerian analysis are flourishing. Among several others in the Unites States, the journals of The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, The Behavior Analyst, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Behavior Modification, and several international journals on behavior analysis regularly publish many articles on the Skinnerian verbal behavior analysis and treatment. This journal, Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis is devoted to bridging the gap between the two disciplines. As Schlinger (2008a) has ably demonstrated, Skinner's Verbal Behavior is alive and well. An interesting observation Schlinger makes is that although both Verbal Behavior and Chomsky's (1957) Syntactic Structures had their 50th anniversary in 2007, Skinner's book on Amazon.com, has been selling better than Chomsky's. The verbal behavior approach to treating children with autism is now recognized internationally as the most evidence-based approach. Teaching almost all forms of communication disorders is essentially behavioral (Hegde, 1998, 2006, 2007; Hegde & Maul, 2006; Pena-Brooks & Hegde, 2007), whether some SLPs acknowledge it or not. In fact, if any tide has turned against something, it is the tide against Chomsky's generative linguistics. While Skinner's experimental and applied behavior analysis is thriving worldwide, Chomsky's generative grammar notion has disappeared from linguistics (Harris, 1993; Leigland, 2007). Chomsky's own multiple revisions and qualifications of his 1957 theory have moved away from a cognitive, generative, rule-based theory of language (Schoneberger, 2000). Within just a few years of Chomsky's Syntactic Structures was published, there was the generative semantic "rebellion" that denied the supremacy of grammar in language. (Linguists often describe newer approaches as revolution, war, rebellion.) Soon came the "pragmatic revolution" which asserted in the 1970s that language should be understood as actions performed in social contexts--mostly an arm-chair philosophical view which was still structural in its orientation. More than 30 years before the "pragmatic revolution," Skinner had advocated the social nature of verbal behavior with better conceptual and experimental bases than the speculative pragmatic approach has ever had (see Skinner, 1957, Preface, for a historical account of his analysis). SLPs have found that when they need to intervene (i.e., offer treatment), they need to turn toward Skinner's experimental and applied behavior analysis; linguistics of any era could offer little or no help.
Contrary to the typical portrayal of Skinner's analysis of language as "simplistic," it is sophisticated, complex, and comprehensive. His analysis of verbal behavior, as he preferred to call it, includes an innovative analysis of grammar, word order, and meaning (Hegde, 2008b) which is unfamiliar to most SLPs. There are other methodological behavioral approaches to language (Osgood, 1963; Mowrer, 1952; Staats, 1968) that are sometimes confused with Skinner's vastly different radical behavioral approach that offers a natural science view of language, with an ensuing applied technology that SLPs have readily accepted. At least three unique features of Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior are especially relevant to an applied science of speech-language pathology.
First, Skinner's analysis accepts the constraints of the methods of natural science. Dependent variables are analyzed in relation to their publicly observable, measurable, and experimentally manipulable independent variables. Skinner's analysis is functional in the sense that it seeks to identify variables that cause verbal behaviors. Explanations of events are kept at the level of observation and experimental analysis, and therefore, do not involve inferred mental, cognitive, or pseudobiological (innate) entities.
Second, Skinner's analysis treats language as a form of behavior, and not as a formal system that exists in the minds or brains of speakers, independent of their actions. Thirty years after the publication of his Verbal Behavior, Skinner (1987, p. 11) restated that his book "is not about language. A language is a verbal environment, which shapes and maintains verbal behavior." He went on to say that "Those who want to analyze language as the expression of ideas, the transmission of information, or the communication of meaning naturally employ different concepts." (1987, p. 11). He then urged the scientists to judge which one--a scientific causal analysis or a mental structural analysis--works better. When a causal approach is preferred, analysis of structural properties of mechanically generated sentences (e.g., they are eating apples, or colorless green ideas sleep furiously) are not productive because they do not represent empirical data. Such productions will be of interest to scientists only when they are empirically recorded utterances of speakers, under given conditions of stimulation, meeting specific social consequences.
Third, Skinner's analysis does not include special explanatory laws. He wrote Verbal Behavior to show that "speech is within the domain of behaviors which can be accounted for by existing functional laws, based on the assumption that it is orderly, lawful, and determined, and that it has no unique emergent properties that require either a separate causal system, an augmented general system, or recourse to mental way-stations" (MacCorquodale, 1969, p. 832). Consistent with his analysis of behaviors in general, Skinner has analyzed verbal behaviors in terms of a contingency relationship between (1) current states of motivation, (2) currently controlling environmental conditions, (3) past history of reinforcement, and (4) the genetic constitution of the individual (Skinner, 1957). Operant analysis, therefore, is not restricted to "stimuli and responses" and does not ignore the genetic factors.
Verbal Behavior: Definition
Verbal behavior (VB) is a class of behavior that is "reinforced through the mediation of other persons" (Skinner, 1957, p.2). Verbal behavior is social behavior, because, unlike nonverbal behavior, it cannot be conditioned or maintained by nonsocial entities. Nonverbal behavior in this context does not refer to nonvocal verbal behavior (as in alternative forms of communication). It refers to behaviors that are, in traditional terms, noncommunicative (e.g., walking or watering a house plant). Contrary to nonverbal behaviors, verbal behavior may be conditioned only by the actions of other people.
The essence of Skinner's definition is that it is only people who get affected by it in such a way as to get conditioned to reinforce VBs. In other words, both the VBs, and their consequences (listener responses), are conditioned. Also, unlike nonverbal behaviors, VBs are devoid of direct and mechanical reinforcement contingencies (Skinner, 1957; MacCorquodale, 1969). As E. Vargas (1988) distinguished them, VBs are verbally governed (mediated), whereas nonverbal behaviors are (environmental) event-governed. Consider the example that contrasts a nonverbal response with a verbal response: A thirsty woman may walk up to the refrigerator and get a drink. The nonverbal response of walking will directly and mechanically get reinforced when she gets her drink--an environmental event. No other person need be present to reinforce it. But instead, if her response is verbal (e.g., "May I have a glass of water?"), it needs social mediation to get reinforced. Someone (mediator) has to reinforce it by complying with her request. The need for a mediator to select and strengthen VBs adds an additional element to the familiar three-term contingency involving stimuli, responses, and consequences that explains nonverbal behavior. VB, therefore, is explained on the basis of a four-term contingency that involves (1) stimuli, (2) verbal responses, (3) listener responses, and (4) the reinforcing effects of listener responses (J. Vargas, 2009). It should be noted however, that in all other respects, VB is essentially like nonverbal behavior. For instance, verbal and nonverbal behaviors both have their respective discriminative stimuli, and are similarly selected and strengthened by their consequences, and may be extinguished by withholding reinforcement (E. Vargas, 1988). Also to be noted is that the uniqueness of VB does not require special explanatory laws; Skinnerian laws of behavior are sufficient to account for it.
Verbal Behavior: Units of Analysis
An analysis of verbal behavior should first determine the units of analysis. Linguists analyze language with such structural units as phonemes, morphemes, words, and sentences that may be adequate for a formal analysis of language. Skinner asserted that linguistic structures tell us nothing about their causes--but the natural science account of any phenomenon is a causal analysis. Apparently, structuralists presume that independent variables can be sliced according to the structural properties of responses. That is, phonemes, words, sentences, and so forth necessarily have separate causal variables--a presumption without empirical support.
Skinner's analysis shows that the same cause may lead to the production of a word, a phrase, or a sentence depending on the current stimulus condition and past reinforcement history. For instance, one might just say, "yuck" or "I think it is disgusting"--variable structural units under similar stimulus conditions and similar effects on listeners. To the contrary, the same verbal response may be controlled by different independent variables in different situations. For instance, a boy might say "ball" because he saw a ball, or echoed someone else, or read the printed word ball.--different causes for structurally the same response ("ball"). That structures (forms) and causes do not covary is unaccounted for in the linguistic analysis. A word is always a word, regardless of why it was produced. A sentence is different from a word, though it may have the same cause as a word on a given occasion. Skinner's analysis of verbal behaviors based on their independent variables avoids this problem inherent to structural analysis.
Technically, the response unit in the behavioral analysis is called a verbal operant which is ". . . a disposition (tendency, likelihood) to respond in a certain way to a certain state of affairs because of a past history of reinforcement" (Winokur, 1976, p. 21). A given verbal response is concrete, and is an exemplar of a class of responses. In contrast, a verbal operant is abstract because it means both a controlling relation and a class of verbal responses with similar causes and conditioning history. Skinner classified VBs on the basis of motivational variables, discriminative stimulus control, and other VBs (that cause additional VBs). The following sections of this paper summarize distinct verbal operants, beginning with mands.
Motivational Control: The Mand
A mand is a verbal operant whose cause is a motivational variable. States of deprivation or aversive stimulation cause mands to be emitted by a speaker. Skinner defined the mand as "a verbal operant in which the response is reinforced by a characteristic consequence and is therefore under the functional control of deprivation or aversive stimulation" (1957, p. 35-36). Under a state of deprivation, positive reinforcers (consequences individuals work to obtain) will be effective. Under conditions of aversive stimulation, negative reinforcers (consequences that remove such stimulation) will be effective. In either case, a mand of any form, including speaking, writing, signing (e.g., American Sign Language), pointing, finger spelling, and sending Morse codes may be emitted (Michael, 1982).
Responses such as A glass of water, please or May I have a hamburger are controlled by states of deprivation and are reinforced positively. States of deprivation are motivational, and deprivation simply means that a person has not had access to something specified for some measured duration. Responses such as Quit that or Get out are controlled by their respective aversive stimulus and are reinforced negatively when the listener complies. In all cases, a mand specifies its own reinforcer; for instance, the mand, Will you please be quiet specifies what will (negatively) reinforce that mand: cessation of chatter. When mands are produced, an appropriately conditioned listener will act in ways that are reinforcing to the speaker.
Produced mostly for the benefit of speakers, and propelled by states of motivation, particular forms of mands do not strictly covary with discriminative stimuli present in the environment. For instance, a speaker's mand, "May I have an apple pie?" is more likely in places where pies are available. Nonetheless, one might also say, "I want to eat a piece of pie" when none is in sight; it may function as a mand if another person who hears it proceeds to bake a pie. Occasionally, when deprivation is very strong, mands may be …
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Publication information: Article title: Language and Grammar: A Behavioral Analysis. Contributors: Hegde, M. N. - Author. Journal title: The Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis. Volume: 5. Issue: 2 Publication date: May 13, 2010. Page number: 90+. © 2006 Behavior Analyst Online. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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