Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

The Role of Action Names, Action Frames, and Modifiers in Listener

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

The Role of Action Names, Action Frames, and Modifiers in Listener

Article excerpt

In Stemmer (1992) it is shown that, with respect to practically all verbal items, correct speaker behavior with respect to a particular item requires the previous acquisition of correct listener behavior with respect to this item. Once the listener behavior has been acquired it can then be "transferred" into speaker behavior1. Therefore, the correct analysis of the processes that establish listener behavior is of primary importance for the analysis of verbal behavior, including speaker behavior. Stemmer (1992) contributes to this project by analyzing so-called ostensive learning processes. Very briefly, in these processes children hear expressions such as "bicycle," "giraffe," or "thunder" while "paying attention" to a particular stimulus. That is, the children are exposed to the pairing of a verbal stimulus (the ostensive expression) with a non-vocal stimulus. These pairing events establish (relatively) correct listener behavior with respect to the ostensive expressions. For example, if a child is exposed to the pairing of the verbal stimulus "This is a bicycle" with the presentation of a (salient) bicycle then, after the exposure to this pairing event, vocal stimuli such as "Give me a bicycle" will often evoke correct listener responses (e.g., Nelson & Bonvillian, 1973; see also Skinner's example of the listener behavior that is generated by an exposure to the ostensive pairing of the vocal stimulus of "Jones-plug" with a Jones-plug, 1957, p. 360).

Ostensive learning processes are not operant conditioning processes. Rather, they are closely related to Pavlovian processes in the following sense: (a) a necessary, and often even a sufficient, condition for the learning effects to occur is the exposure to the pairing of two salient stimuli, one a verbal stimulus (e.g., the word "Jones-plug"), and the second, some other stimulus (e.g., the Jones-plug); and (b) the learning occurs without the systematic reinforcement of a specific response to the vocal stimulus.

Some readers may object to classifying ostensive learning as a variety of Pavlovian conditioning, but this is mainly a terminological issue. What is important is that ostensive learning is significantly different from normal operant conditioning. In particular, there is no need for the systematic reinforcement of a specific response to the vocal stimulus. (See also Skinner's example of Ali Baba's listener behavior after he was exposed to the pairing of the vocal stimulus "Open, Sesame" with a non-vocal event, 1957, p. 359.)

In the present paper, I examine another type of process that generates early listener behavior, namely the operant conditioning processes that establish listener responses to so-called action frames such as "drop x [e.g., shoe]," "drink x [e.g. juice]," or "walk x [e.g., slowly]." These processes are even more important than the ostensive ones because the responses to at least some of the action frames are usually established before ostensive expressions are learned. Moreover, early listener behavior largely consists of responses to combinations of action frames with so-called modifiers which include, among others, the ostensive expressions. The present analysis therefore complements the analysis of Stemmer (1992). Together, they cover the main aspects of early listener behavior. This analysis will also suggest that one of the most important effects of ostensive pairing events is to establish ostensive expressions as modifiers of action frames.

Action Frames

Action Names.

The learning of action frames begins with the learning of responses to action names such as "come here," "drink," "more," "give me," "don't," "drop it," or "bye-bye" (e.g., Benedict, 1979; Dromi, 1987; Smith & Sachs, 1990). These responses are learned with the help of operant conditioning processes; the (relatively) correct responses to the names are established by a process of differential reinforcement.

Some of the action names may be considered by adults as consisting of two (or more) elements such as "go to sleep," "go to the corner," "drink the milk," "walk slowly," "give shoe," or "drop sock. …

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