Analysis of the Acquisition of Verbal Operants in a Child from 17 Months to 2 Years of Age

By Cruvinel, Adriana Cunha; Hubner, Maria Martha Costa | The Psychological Record, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Analysis of the Acquisition of Verbal Operants in a Child from 17 Months to 2 Years of Age


Cruvinel, Adriana Cunha, Hubner, Maria Martha Costa, The Psychological Record


In 1957, Skinner published the book Verbal Behavior, in which he proposed a new way of understanding the phenomenon that has been treated and traditionally known as "language." Skinner's proposal differs greatly from other theories that also seek to study and explain language. Skinner's theory is characterized by first treating language as an operant behavior. Thus, verbal behavior can be explained by the same processes as any other behavior. It is shaped and maintained by its consequences. What makes it special is that its first effect is upon another person (Skinner, 1957). To understand verbal behavior, identifying its controlling variables is necessary, including the conditions under which a response is emitted and the consequences that this response produces. Therefore, the unit of analysis of verbal behavior is not the response but rather the operant, once it includes the description of the contingencies of reinforcement.

Given these relationships, Skinner provided categories for the analysis of verbal behavior, called verbal operants. Each of the verbal operants was addressed separately. However, this can only be justified by didactic purposes, once multiple variables control a response. Verbal responses are a function of a combination of variables that act simultaneously on a response. In natural situations, verbal operants are not likely emitted separately. According to Serio and Andery (2002), assuming that any of these types of verbal operants can be found in its pure form in any instance of verbal behavior would be a mistake. Like any behavior, verbal behavior is controlled by multiple factors. What can be identified are verbal responses with multiple functions, combining different operants in the same response. This assumption reveals the complexity involved in the analysis of verbal behavior, beginning with the identification of verbal operants. It is the basis for further and more complex analysis.

The complexity involved in the analysis of verbal behavior was recognized by Skinner (1979). According to him, this is one of the reasons why most of the analysis in his book did not have empirical support. The book Verbal Behavior attempts to explain a complex phenomenon, and many assumptions are only interpretations that still require further investigation. Although the book was written in 1957, behavioral analysis still needs this empirical support because of the extent of the interpretations and innovation of its proposal.

Data from other areas sometimes do not contribute to a broader understanding of verbal behavior from Skinner's perspective of analysis. Traditionally, the unit of analysis adopted in studies of language acquisition is based on grammatical aspects, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, and suffixes. According to Skinner's proposal, a noun, for example, may have different functions, depending on the relationships that these responses have with their controlling variables. For example, a child can emit the verbal response "ball" in the presence of the object of a ball under the control of social reinforcement received when this response occurs. These relationships characterize this response as a tact.

The same child can emit a verbal response with the same topography as "ball," but under control of the reinforcement of receiving the ball in his hands when this response is emitted. These relationships characterize this response as a mand. When verbal responses are analyzed according to grammatical aspects, this kind of analysis does not describe the relationships that responses maintain with their controlling variables. For Skinner (1957), the meaning of words or sentences is not in the words or sentences themselves but rather in the relationships with their controlling variables. To this extent, identifying the relationships between a verbal response, the conditions under which the response is emitted, and the consequences produced by this response are essential for a complete analysis of verbal behavior. …

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Analysis of the Acquisition of Verbal Operants in a Child from 17 Months to 2 Years of Age
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