Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Language Is Complex

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Language Is Complex

Article excerpt

Verbal Behavior is an impressive book, even when one considers it against the backdrop of decades of research on language that came after it. Only a small fraction of this later research is influenced by Verbal Behavior itself. The vagaries of history and human hubris can keep communities from sharing good ideas, even when these communities are composed of scientists, the supposed archetypal agents of objectivity (a sometimes challenged ideal: Brush, 1974). The emerging community of cognitive psychology, and the "behaviorist" community that preceded it, served to antagonize only for a short time until the communities in many ways diverged (Leahey, 2001). Verbal Behavior has many good ideas that have, in the decades after it, been reemerging. Cognitive psychological research on language, in which this reemergence is occurring, is now a literature apart from the book's intellectual progeny. Despite exciting and valuable work on applying the units of analysis identified by Skinner (e.g., Sundberg, 1991; Sundberg & Michael, 2001; see also Dymond, O'Hora, Whelan, & O'Donovan, 2006), Verbal Behavior's good ideas were not properly imported into broader interest in language learning and use. Discussing some of these reemerging good ideas is one goal of this commentary.

But after 50 years, it cannot be denied that Verbal Behavior was not and cannot be a complete answer. We seriously doubt anyone, even those whom the book inspires, would contest this. The book laid a scientific foundation by "building" and "strengthening" a new verbal repertoire (p. 455) that was nevertheless intended to be an "exercise in interpretation" (p. 11; Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from Skinner, 1957). New data and new ideas should effect change in interpretations. In the past two decades there has been a well-known movement in behavioral circles to do this (e.g., Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001). There still remain open questions about the applicability of this interpretation and its progeny to the vast database gathered by the sciences of language. It behooves the scientist whom Verbal Behavior inspires to consider these data in a way that moves beyond the promissory connotation that "interpretation" carries. Another goal of this commentary is to consider two avenues of research in psycholinguistics and developmental psycholinguistics that demand an explanation, and still generate debate.

A final goal of this commentary is to consider briefly how behavioral and cognitive communities could interact in a broader "plural" psychology (Slife, 2000). Already within cognitive science, there has been some suggestion to get beyond "paradigm debate" that has characterized so much of the history of our field to date (Dale, in press; Eliasmith, 2003; Looren de Jong, 2002; McCauley & Bechtel, 2001). According to this approach, the complexity of our subject matter -in structure, function, and history- requires a solution that embraces that complexity even in the solution itself.

To begin, we consider some good ideas that Verbal Behavior emphasized. The book broadly emphasizes three fundamental notions that have become a centerpiece of some cognitive accounts of language learning and use: the richness of social contingencies, diverse multiple causes of language behavior, and piecemeal growth of language structure.


The control by other speakers of a linguistic community is definitive of verbal behavior according to Skinner (p. 14). While this broad definition is known to lead to some questionable identification of "verbal behavior" in experimental settings (e.g., Hayes et al, 2001, pp. 10-11), it is a notion that is rich in its layers of causes and effects in the book. For example, the application of these social influences in ecological contexts may be piecemeal in nature, influencing ongoing child learning in subtle ways, perhaps at first just to encourage anything that "vaguely resembles the adult form" (p. …

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