In 1957, famed behaviorist B.F. Skinner published a book titled Verbal Behavior. In this book he proposed reinforcement as the basis for which language is learned. Noam Chomsky, “father of modern linguistics”, publicly criticized Skinner for his views. He scoffed at the idea of children learning language purely through the reinforcing behaviors of those around them. He asked how children could create new sentences that they had never heard before if language was learned through behavior (Goldstein, 2011). I would be inclined to agree with him. It is a well-known fact: kids say the darndest things. Things that they probably haven’t heard from their parents and most certainly were not reinforced. Behaviorism is not the sole answer when it comes to language acquisition amongst the majority of the population. And yet, for the handful of children who come into this world destined to struggle with language their entire lives, it may be.
I’ve written before about my experiences with behaviorism and autism. I couldn’t do my job without the skills I’ve learned through Applied Behavior Analysis. One of those skills is Verbal Behavior Therapy. All of my students struggle with communication in some way or other, but a few are incapable of even the most basic language skills. What is your name? Where do you live? Are you sick? These children don’t know what these questions mean, let alone how to answer them. Verbal Behavior Therapy helps us to teach our students how to connect words with their meanings so they can make requests or communicate ideas.
Skinner broke up language into four operants: mand, tact, intraverbal, and echoic. A mand is a simple request. If a child asks for a pencil, we give them a pencil. Tact is a comment made to draw attention to something. A child may say “book” to show you where they placed their book. Intraverbal is used to respond to a question. You ask a child his name and he responds with “Steve”. Echoic is a repeated word or phrase used to acknowledge understanding. You ask a child if they need a pencil and if they repeat the word pencil, then you give it to them (Verbal Behavior Therapy, 2014).
All of these techniques are used to teach students with language difficulties how to communicate. Constant prompting and reinforcement are necessary to teach these children how to communicate their wants and needs. So, behaviorism may not be the source of all language, but for the few that need it, it is invaluable.
Goldstein, E.B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.
Verbal Behavior Therapy. (2014). Autism Speaks. Retrieved from http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/treatment/verbal-behavior-therapy