Language and Grammar: A Behavioral Analysis

Article excerpt


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, 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. …


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