Learning & Teaching Foreign Languages

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Verbal behavior

Read and Reflect

According to one of the most important proponents of American behaviorism, verbal behavior, like other human or animal behavior, can be considered in terms of stimulus-response units.

This human species is distinguished by the fact that its vocal responses can be easily conditioned as operants. There are many kinds of verbal operants because the behavior must be reinforced only through the mediation of other people, and they do many different things. The reinforcing practices of a given culture compose what is called a language. The practices are responsible for most of the extraordinary achievements of the human species. Other species acquire behavior from each other through imitation and modelling (they show each other what to do), but they cannot tell each other what to do. We acquire most of our behavior with that kind of help. We take advice, heed warnings, observe rules, and obey laws, and our behavior then comes under the control of consequences which would otherwise not be effective. Most of our behavior is too complex to have occurred for the first time without such verbal help. By taking advice and following rules we acquire a much more extensive repertoire than would be possible through a solitary contact with the environment.

A brief survey of operant behavior (Skinner)

Comprehension

1. How do humans, unlike animals, acquire behavior?

2. What evidence does Skinner offer for this explanation?

3. What advantage does this mode of learning offer the human race?
 

Reflection

What objections might non-behaviorists raise to this view of verbal behavior?

ANSWERS

 Comprehension

1. How do humans, unlike animals, acquire behavior?
We tell each other what to do, via advice, rules, warnings and so on

2. What evidence does Skinner offer for this explanation?
Our behavior is often too complex to have occurred for the first time without verbal help

3. What advantage does this mode of learning offer the human race?
We learn more than each could alone.

Reflection
What objections might non-behaviorists raise to this view of verbal behavior?

Read the famous critique of Skinner's position, as stated in his 1957 Verbal Behavior, by Noam Chomsky, founder of a radically different cognitivist approach to the study of language. You should be familiar with the key concepts of behaviorist psychology before reading.

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