IntroductionThe Behaviourist Theory (also known Empiricism, Behaviourism, Behavioural Theory, Stimulus-response Theory) stands among the major theoretical perspectives within the field of first language acquisition. It began as a reaction against the introspective psychology of the late 19th and early 20th century and dominated the study of learning throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Although its ascendancy was blurred by the emergence of the Innate Theory in the mid 20th century, still today much language learning programmes firmly stands on the foundation laid by the Behaviourist Theory.
Theoretical AssumptionsThe theoretical assumptions underlying the Behaviourist Theory are as follows:
- Language learning is a habit formation resembling the formation of other habits. In other words, Language is learned in the way in which other habits are learned.
- Language learning is nothing more than the acquisition of new behaviour or knowledge. It takes place when experience or practice causes a change in a person's knowledge or behaviour.
- Language learning is an external event, because it involves an observable change in behaviour brought about by the stimuli coming from the environment. It does not involve any unobservable change in mental knowledge. All behaviours can be explained without the need to consider internal mental states or consciousness.
- Only human beings have the capacity for language learning. They acquire a language as discrete units of habits, independently trained, not as an integrated system.
Background of the TheoryThe behaviourist school of thought ran concurrent with the psychoanalysis movement in psychology in the 20th century. The Behaviourist Theory was first introduced in 1913 by the American psychologist John B. Watson. Watson is credited by some with coining the term "behaviourism". Watson’s view was largely influenced by the research of the Russian physiologist Ivan P. Pavlov during the early 1900s. The most influential version of this theory is put forward by B. F. Skinner in 1959. His version of Behaviourism is best known as Radical Behaviourism. Skinner, sought to give ethical grounding to behaviourism, relating it to pragmatism.
Types of Behavioural Learning
Experiments by the behaviourists identify conditioning as a universal learning process. Conditionings are primarily of two types, each yielding a different behavioural pattern:
Thus, it is quite visible that the Behaviourist Theory (as propounded by Skinner) is represented as a “stimulus – response – reinforcement” chain. For better understanding, this chain can be demonstrated in the following illustration:
The Behaviourist Theory explains two major aspects. It firstly explains how the child produces speech. It secondly explains how he/she understands speech. Positive and negative reinforcement contain various adult utterances which function as discriminating stimuli for the production of the child’s responses (behaviours). When the child hears these adult utterances he/she tries to imitate them to produce his/her speech. The child earns the ability to understand a speech when he/she becomes able to produce an utterance which is appropriate to the situation. Reinforcement can come from different sources. The mother is the primary source of reinforcement because she has to take care of the child almost all the time. The people around him/her can also provide reinforcement.
DrawbacksAlthough sound in many ways, the theory is not free from limitations. The shortcomings of this theory are as follows:
ConclusionThe Behaviourist Theory came under fierce attack when Chomsky proposed his Innate Theory in 1959. Chomsky’s theory strongly proved that the child is not a tabula rasa; rather he is born with an innate capability to learn language. Nevertheless, along with all of its limitations, the Behaviourist Theory was able to govern the direction of the psychological explanation of language acquisition quite productively. After its emergence, this theory was passively accepted by the influential Bloomfieldian structuralist school of linguistics and produced some well-known models of foreign language teaching, most notably, the Audio Lingual Method. For many years, the concepts from the Behaviourist Theory formed the basis of most of the learning theory applied in child rearing and in classrooms. Parents and teachers still find that, in many instances, individuals do learn when provided with the appropriate blend of stimulus, reinforcement, and punishments. Especially with small children and simpler tasks, behaviourist principles are often effective. Thus, the contribution of the Behaviourist Theory as an explanation of child language development cannot be overlooked altogether.
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