How is language learned according to Behaviorist theory of language acquisition?
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.
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.]
"The major principle of the behaviorist theory rests on the analyses of human behavior in observable stimulus-response interaction and the association between them."