Learning & Teaching Foreign Languages

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Generalisation and discrimination

Read and Reflect

Read Robin Raygor's account of generalisation (pp. 241-2 and 260-1) and discrimination (pp. 242-3 and 260-1) in classical and operant conditioning.

1. What examples does Raygor give of
a) classical generalisation
b) operant generalisation
c) classical discrimination
d) operant discrimination

2. Why are processes of generalisation and discrimination relevant to second language learning?


1. a) classical generalisation

* the use of a bell similar to the original bell used to condition salivation

* fear of all bees after one bee sting

* different notes on piano to condition salivation in dogs

* Little Albert's fear of white and furry objects after conditioned to fear a white rat

b) operant generalisation

* a dog trained to sit at the command 'sit' responds to similar sounds (fit, spit)

* dog responds to cat's name as well as own

c) classical discrimination

* a dog trained to respond to middle C on a piano generalises to C#, but when reinforced only for middle C ceases to respond to C#. It learns to discriminate between C and C#.

d) operant discrimination

* the dog which generalised its response to the cat's name from its own name is trained to respond only to its own name by negative reinforcement - it is rewarded (welcomed) only when responding to its own name.

* Skinner trained rats to press a lever only when a light was on, thus discriminating between light and dark

* Other examples include individuals learning to use a vending machine only when it is illuminated, or a phone only when we hear a dial tone.

2. a) Generalisation: We only hear samples of the second language, not every possible sentence. We need to generalise what we hear to new situations.
b) Discrimination: We need to be able to distinguish between similar phonemes in order to separate different words, for example the minimal pairs sheep and ship. The distinction may be difficult for French speakers whose native language has only the second vowel.

For examples of discrimination training in second language learning, see Woodsworth, 1965, p. 38 (PDF p. 49)

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