Academic journal article The Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis

Verbal Behavior by B.F. Skinner: Contributions to Analyzing Early Language Learning

Academic journal article The Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis

Verbal Behavior by B.F. Skinner: Contributions to Analyzing Early Language Learning

Article excerpt

Introduction

Two pieces of literature appeared quietly and without fanfare in 1957. Each book unalterably affected how we have come to view language, human behavior, and language learning. In 1957, Noam Chomsky published Syntactic Structures (1957), his germinal work that established the foundations of psycholinguistics. This work, in combination with a second publication, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Chomsky, 1965), broadly influenced research in linguistics and the theoretical relationships between the mind and language. Together, they represented a firm anchor point on one end-the nativistic end-of the philosophical continuum established in 1957.

With regard to explaining language development, one of the more publicized features of this theory was the Language Acquisition Device, or LAD. Although there was no intention to correlate this "device" to any underlying neurological structure, Chomsky proposed the LAD as the presumed innate mechanism in the human brain (or mind) to explain the apparent ease and rapidity with which children acquire language. Although the concept of the LAD has been modified through the years, in the 1960s it became the widely accepted explanation for children's acquisition of language, largely removing caregivers from any active role in their children's language abilities.

The opposite anchor point-the behavioral end-on this philosophical continuum was established that same year, when B.F. Skinner published Verbal Behavior (1957). (See Hegde, in this issue, for a comprehensive review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior.) In contrast to Chomsky's approach, Skinner proposed an analysis of verbal behavior based on a natural science account of behavior that had evolved since the earlier publication of his The Behavior of Organisms (1938). In Verbal Behavior, Skinner applied a functional analysis approach to analyze language behaviors in terms of their natural occurrence in response to observable environmental circumstances and the measurable effects they have on human interactions. In this view, language was characterized as the result of, as opposed to the reason for, complex human behavior. The complexities of language do not exist prior to or independent of human behavior; instead the complexities of language behavior reflect our capacity to respond verbally to the complex and subtle intricacies inherent in human experiences and interactions.

In Verbal Behavior, Skinner (1957) did not emphasize explaining the nature of early language development; perhaps the explanation seemed obvious to him from the fact that he had invoked an operant model in the overall analysis. Verbal Behavior primarily focused on an explication of the causal variables for the verbal interactions of accomplished speakers and listeners whose learning histories were in place and preceded the verbal behaviors in question-in essence, adult speakers. It is perhaps unfortunate that Skinner emphasized this level of analysis-adult verbal interactions-throughout Verbal Behavior as it ostensibly posed difficulty for some who have tried to explain the development of language under his model. Chomsky critiqued Skinner's functional analysis in a book review that many found puzzling due to several lengthy criticisms put forth by Chomsky that did not relate to principles or concepts contained in Verbal Behavior. Specifically, Chomsky criticized Skinner for proposing imitation and conscientious parental tutoring as the major explanations for language development. Chomsky also took Skinner to task for his supposed reliance on memorized Markovian chains as an explanation for grammar. However, none of these elements were included in Skinner's model. Over the years, attempts to describe how Skinner's model might be applied to children's language development, including recent sources (Owens, 2005; Berko Gleason, 2005; Hulit, 2006), have continued to rely on perpetuating these misconceptions contained in Chomsky's (1959) "bewildering" (MacCorquodale, 1970, p. …

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