How is language learned, according to the behaviorist theory of language acquisition?

According to the behaviorist theory of language acquisition, children learn language as they do any other behavior. They mimic the language patterns of those around them, responding to the rewards and punishments that follow from correct and incorrect usage, respectively.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The behaviorist theory of language acquisition examines this process as a system of successful attempts which are encouraged through various rewards.

It's no accident that the words for a child's mother and father are typically some of the easiest sounds to form in most languages. In English, infants are taught...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The behaviorist theory of language acquisition examines this process as a system of successful attempts which are encouraged through various rewards.

It's no accident that the words for a child's mother and father are typically some of the easiest sounds to form in most languages. In English, infants are taught to say "mama" and "dada," both which take minimal tongue and lip coordination. Behaviorists claim that when infants correctly use these sounds, particularly to specifically identify or recognize their parents, they are rewarded with applause, hugs, and affection. Infants enjoy the encouragement, and they then repeat those sounds, which leads to further rewards. Soon, they begin to imitate other sounds that they hear, and the adults or proficient users of the language typically continue to provide various rewards for those efforts.

Soon, infants learn that they can request things which they want through their use of sounds, and this becomes a reward in itself. Using the words "milk," "book," or "play" can earn these new users of the language some additional benefits as they begin to exert a little control over their environments.

Behaviorist theory maintains that this system of rewards continues to foster language development as learners are continually rewarded, albeit via various types of rewards, for their successful language attempts. As errors are not rewarded and correct usage of the language earns a favorable response, speakers grow their language skills to sound increasingly similar to fluent language users.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Language acquisition" refers to the process of learning a language, although behaviorist ideas of language acquisition specifically seek to understand how people learn their native language, while only being more generally applicable to foreign language learning.

Because behaviorists frame language as a behavior, they argue that the process of language acquisition, for an infant, is similar to the process of learning other behaviors. Infants mimic the behaviors they see other people model, and correct imitation is rewarded by other people in their environment, allowing for these successes to be identified and repeated. As a child ages, punishments and corrections for incorrect language use will also be issued, helping to nuance the language-learning process.

Behaviorists do not believe that learning is a process that involves active thought. Rather, they see learning as a process of conditioning. So, to behaviorists, the rewards and punishments that a language learner receives will contribute to a reflexive understanding of language use that cannot be established through deliberate, intentional thought alone.

This reduction of language to behavior is often criticized, and other language acquisition theories construct language as much more complicated than other forms of behavior, thus requiring a more complex understanding of how language is learned.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

According to the behaviorist theory, language is learned through reinforcement. The environment assists the learner to link the sounds they hear to the scenario. Since infants cannot communicate in a formal way, they tend to mimic the sounds that they hear from their parents, associate actions with certain words, and subconsciously relate the situation to the sound. Furthermore, a learner is only able to learn through positive reinforcement. For example, if an infant pronounces a word correctly and the parent responds with a smile, the child is reassured about the meaning of the word. However, if the parent fails to respond, the child ignores that word. Additionally, the learner can only acquire the language if there's constant practice. The more they are exposed to the words, the more likely they are to understand them.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Behaviorist theory of language acquisition states that language is a behavior and, consequently, is learned like any other behavior via positive and negative reinforcement. Physiologist B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), coined the term “Operant Conditioning,” meaning simply that a behavior resulting in positive consequences is likely to be repeated, while a behavior resulting in negative consequences is likely to be halted. With regard to the Behaviorist theory of language acquisition, he speaks to the “reinforcement of successive approximations,” taking operant conditioning one step further.

An example of early language development through the reinforcement of successive approximations is as follows: An infant makes sounds mimicking the sounds that he hears adults make. Eventually, he says “baba” while reaching towards his bottle, and his mother gives him his bottle. But as time goes on, “baba” becomes “baby talk” in his mother’s eyes, and he must fully pronounce “bottle” to get what he wants. Even further down the line, he must speak in full sentences to be rewarded. In this scenario, the child learns a behavior (language) through operant conditioning, and the behavior is gradually shaped over time through the reinforcement of successive approximations.

Physiologist Ole Ivar Løvaas (1927–2010) used Skinner’s theories while working with non-verbal autistic children, many of whom he successfully taught to speak.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Language acquisition according to behaviorists depends on human role models, imitation, rewards and practice. Behaviorist theory of language acquisition (Skinner) is one of four dominant language acquisition theories. The other three are innatist (Chomsky); cognitive (Piaget); and social interactionist (Vygotsky).

Behaviorist theory of language acquisition asserts that stimuli for language learning comes from the presence of humans. The rewards also come from the presence of humans. Humans who are present are imitated. Practice is with humans. Rewards are enhanced when humans, called role models, respond to language learning and acquisition attempts with praise and affection.

[For expanded discussion, see Language & Literacy Development, Mrs. Meadows, Crescent Elementary School.]

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team