March 4, 2010


The 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 Assumptions

The 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 Theory

The 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:

1. Classical conditioning: This conditioning was first described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, in 1903 through his experiment on dogs. The general idea of Pavlov’s experiment is this: Pavlov presented dogs with food to examine their salivary response. He rang a bell just before serving the food. At first the dogs did not salivate until the food is served. However, when the bell was rung at repeated feedings, the sound of bell alone caused the dogs to salivate.

pavlov's-classical- conditioning

Thus in classical conditioning an unconditioned stimulus (food) is paired with a conditioned stimulus (bell). When they repeatedly occur in pair, the conditioned stimulus acquires the capacity to produce a conditioned response (salivation). Subsequently, the conditioned stimulus alone can produce a conditioned response.

Subsequently, it was studied in infants by John B. Watson. Like Pavlov, he was originally involved in animal research, but later became involved in the study of human behaviour. Watson believed that humans are born with a few reflexes and the emotional reactions of love and rage. All other behaviour is established through stimulus-response associations through conditioning.

Watson demonstrated classical conditioning in an experiment involving a young child (Albert) and a white rat. Originally, Albert was unafraid of the rat; but Watson created a sudden loud noise whenever Albert touched the rat. Because Albert was frightened by the loud noise, he soon became conditioned to fear and avoid the rat. The fear was generalised to other small animals. Watson then extinguished the fear by presenting the rat without the loud noise. Some accounts of the study suggest that the conditioned fear was more powerful and permanent than it really was.

2. Instrumental or Operant Conditioning: Expanding on Watson’s basic stimulus-response model, Skinner developed a more comprehensive view of conditioning, known as operant conditioning.Skinner’s model was based on the premise that effective language behaviour consists of producing responses (behaviours) to the correct stimuli (situation). When a response is followed by a reinforcer (reward) then it is conditioned to occur again. Thus operant conditioning was used by Skinner to describe the effects of the consequences of a particular behaviour on the future occurrence of the behaviour. Reinforcement and punishment are the core ideas of operant conditioning:

Reinforcement: A reinforcer is a stimulus (encouraging activity) that increases the frequency/occurrence of a response it follows. The act of following a response with a reinforcer is called reinforcement. Reinforcement (prize) can be classified into the following types:

(i) Positive Reinforcement: Positive reinforcement is the encouragement of a desired response (behaviour) by a pleasant stimulus. It increases the probability of the reoccurrence of the same response to the same situation. For example: If the child produces an alternative which is appropriate to the situation, the mother will reward him/her with some sign of approval (such as smiles, hugs, or food). This approval or reward will encourage him to repeat the same response to the same situation.

(ii) Negative Reinforcement: Negative reinforcement is the discouragement of an undesired response (behaviour) by an unpleasant stimulus. It decreases the probability of the reoccurrence of the same response to the same situation. For example: If the child produces an utterance which is inappropriate to the situation, he/she will not be rewarded. Consequently, the child will not repeat the same response to the same situation.

Punishment: Punishment is used to erase undesirable behaviours by presenting a distressing stimulus when the behaviour occurs. Punishment can be classified into the following types:

(i) Positive Punishment: An undesirable stimulus is received after a behaviour occurs. For example, if the learner fails to follow the class then he will be given detention.
(ii) Negative Punishment: A desirable stimulus is lost or removed after a behaviour occurs. For example, if the learner fails to follow the class rules then he will not be given any recess hour.

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.


Although sound in many ways, the theory is not free from limitations. The shortcomings of this theory are as follows:

Firstly, the Behaviourist Theory completely ignores the inborn aspect of human knowledge.
Secondly, the theory puts over emphasis on the role of imitation and ignores completely the creativity of the child, making him/her somewhat passive viewer than actor in the process of language acquisition.
Thirdly, the Behaviorist Theory seems to be somewhat mechanical in nature, since the child is considered a passive object.
Fourthly, it cannot develop the child’s problem solving skills. The child may find himself/herself in a situation where the stimulus to the correct response does not occur. In such cases the child won’t be able to respond.
Fifthly, it fails to explain how the child understands utterances he/she has never heard before, or produces new and unique utterances.
Finally, the Behaviourist Theory cannot explain how the child proceeds in his/her journey of language acquisition at such a young age.


The 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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“Behaviorist Learning Theory.” Innovative Learning. 2008. 20 September 2008

“Behaviorist Theories of Learning.” SIL International. 1999.SIL International. 22 August 2008

“Classical Conditioning (Pavlov) .” Learning – 2008. Learning Theories.
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“Instructional Design & Learning Theory.” University of Saskatchewan. 1994-2008.
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“Learning Theories/Behavioralist Theories.” Wikipedia. 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.
20 September 2008 <>.
Tanvir Shameem Tanvir Shameem is not the biggest fan of teaching, but he is doing his best to write on various topics of language and literature just to guide thousands of students and researchers across the globe. You can always find him experimenting with presentation, style and diction. He will contribute as long as time permits. You can find him on:


  1. Thanks. The notes were extremely helpful as it gave a clearcut knowledge about the said theory. The language was extremely easy to understand.

  2. The notes are really helpful. Thanks for your post.

  3. Thanks a a very good summary in a single place.

  4. If we ever do end up acting just like a rats or pavlov's dogs, it will be largely because behaviorism has conditioned us to do so. See the link below for more info.


  5. Great work done. How can I contact you.


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