Second Language Learning Theories – The Behaviouristic Approach as the Initial Theory towards Modern Researches

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

22 Pages, Grade: 2-3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Different Approaches to SLA and/or Second Language Learning – an overview

3. B. F. Skinner – his theory on learning
3.1 The Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis
3.2 The Audiolingual Method in the behaviouristic classroom
3.3 Behaviouristic L2 teaching and learning – today

4. Which approach is the best one? Is there any `true´ approach at all?
4.1 Ten principles of L2 learning and teaching

5. A Prospect to the future

6. References

1. Introduction

Teachers are introduced to a wide variety of different approaches concerning First Language (L1) and Second Language Learning or Acquisition (SLA/L2), and the influences behind these approaches. Future foreign languages teachers need to develop an in-depth understanding of these theories to see how they will influence the outcome of the teaching. The recent seminar “How languages are learned” explored the approaches of the theories, examined the history to see how they were developed and discussed external influences such as psychology, biology and environmental on them.

As I found out during my literary research, the behaviouristic approach brought an initial change towards the understanding of language learning in SLA and henceforth towards teaching. Because of this, I will discuss an overview of the various approaches of the 20th century, paying special attention to behaviouristic methods, emphasising its significance. The behaviouristic approach leans towards the use of the Audiolingual Method in second language classrooms. This approach was dominant in the 1950’s and 60’s and was popular among renowned psychologists and linguists such as Skinner, Watson, Lado, and Bloomfield. They were of the opinion that all learning can be understood as a habit formation through stimuli from the environment. (Ellis, 1997, pp. 31&138) As a result, the Audiolingual Method concerning L2 teaching became popular and can be characterized trough the following activities of teaching: repetition, inflection, replacement, completion, expansion, etc.. I am going into detail with these terms later. Concerning the Audiolingual Method it is important to mention that its basis, namely the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis (CAH), creates the connection between behaviourism and the audiolingual teaching methodology. The CAH can be briefly defined as the assumption (based on behaviourism) that all language learning depends on the mother tongue or L1 and where there are similarities between both, no mistakes will occur in the L2, whereas on the other hand where there are differences between L1 and L2, errors are likely to occur. (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, pp. 50-61)

Questions that arose from the seminar which are both interesting and important for discussion are: As we have so many “good” and “bad” approaches, which one is the best? Is there in fact one ‘true’ approach?

The following document will attempt to provide the reader with information about how languages are learned; discuss the approaches and provide the future “Language Teacher” with what each approach “offers” and does “not offer.”

2. Different Approaches to Second Language Acquisition and/or Second Language Learning – an overview

When Richards & Rodgers (2001, pp.50-52) investigated Second Language teaching according to Second Language Acquisition (hereafter: SLA) theories throughout history, they began describing the development around the time of World War II. They found that the American entry into World War II was an initial starting point for L2 learning in America because of the language learning programmes, which were established in 1942. These programmes were designed to enable the military personnel to speak languages like German, French, Italian, etc. fluently. As the background of teaching a second language was a military one, there is no need to figure out reasons for drill methods. Language learning was characterized by an intensity of language contact, without the real methods we have established today and was oral-based. It is obvious that teacher education followed the same method that designed to train special agents for the US. Leonard Bloomfield was one of the first linguists who had developed a L2 teaching programme in 1939, and which the Army adopted. His method was oral-based and worked through students´ imitation of the language produced by a native speaker, the informant. The “informant method” was practiced via drill and with highly motivated students even lead to success. However, for conventional language teaching this method was not successful and so “new approaches were necessary” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.50).

Bloomfield’s method was popular for the next ten years in L2 teaching but the number of linguists working on the topic and methods increased. In the English Language Institute in Michigan, Charles Fries “applied structural linguistics to language teaching” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.51). Richards & Rodgers (2001) explain that the starting point of teaching was the grammar of a language and students were taught to identify sentence patterns and grammatical structures firstly, then oral drilling practiced pronunciation. As Hockett (1959) put it, “it is these basic patterns that constitute the learner’s task. They require drill, drill, and more drill, and only through and only enough vocabulary to make such drills possible” (Hockett; cited in Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.52). This statement shows explicitly that in those days practice was seen as the only way to success, disregarding different learner types or important vocabulary, etc. what we see today as fundamental in L2 teaching (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, pp.51-52).

In the 1950’s the behaviourist theory came up which as one of the first to study learning directly, i.e. how people learn in general. This theory was quickly adapted to SLA and henceforth to L2 teaching methodologies. As Lightbown & Spada (1999) describe it: “behaviourists account for learning in terms of imitation, practice, reinforcement (or feedback on success), and habit formation.” (Lightbown & Spada, p.35) This leads to a way of language teaching which still makes use of pattern drill but with the view of encouraging students, i.e. giving them positive feedback to ensure correct repetition, (the Audiolingual Method).

Learning via imitation and behaviouristic elements held the sway of the teaching community as their main influence for an extended period of time. In 1980 Noam Chomsky highly criticised this view, insisting in his view that the language was not a habit that could be learned. On the contrary, his “theory is based on the hypothesis that innate knowledge of the principles of Universal Grammar (UG) permits all children to acquire the language of their environment.” (Lightbown & Spada, 1999, p.36). Cook (2001, pp. 181-183) describes that Universal Grammar underlies the belief that all grammar of a language was based on universal principles or structures of the target language which only need to be used. They do not need to be learned because they are part of the human mind. According to SLA this approach is not suitable entirely, but Chomsky’s innate UG has often been characterized as a very good starting point for L2 learning. As Cook (2001) put it: “As the universal Grammar in the student’s mind is so powerful, there is comparatively little for the teacher to do.” (Cook, p.183) This standpoint was often discussed because many others argue that the UG, if it exists, may be a little help in L2 language learning but because of different structures in various languages it cannot be the basis of SLA (Lightbown & Spada, 1999, p.36). Together with the cognitive approach the Critical Period Hypothesis was formed, which is closely related to Chomsky’s theory of the innate Universal Grammar. This hypothesis roughly states that children can only learn a language until a certain age, i.e. Lenneberg (Lightbown & Spada, 1999, p.19) constituted that children need to be stimulated at the right time to learn a language. He compares this development with the biological development of learning to walk. He states that a child who cannot speak may learn to understand complex sentences but a child who simply was not stimulated to speech until a certain age will never be able to speak. This has been proved by several natural experiments, e.g. Victor and Genie. They were 12 and 13 years old when they were found they have never been exposed to language and both of them never reached an adequate level of language concerning their age. Other factors “besides biological maturity” (Lightbown & Spada, 1999, p.21) may be further reasons why both of them did never learn a language properly but those are hard to define. A long time, the Critical Period Hypothesis was also valid for SLA. Lenneberg (Lightbown & Spada, 1999, pp.19-21) again argued that biological factors would determine the ability of SLA, i.e. between the age of two and twelve years languages, including L2, can be learned best. However, various investigations proved the Critical Period Hypothesis to be false because even adolescents and adults have been able to achieve very good abilities in the target language, and sometimes they show better results than children do. Age appears to neither significantly simplify nor harden L2 learning. Changes of personality, cognitive maturity, motivation and socio-psychological reasons have a great influence on SLA.

Stephen Krashen, another opponent against the behaviouristic approach, yet considers some of these points. He offered other innatist theories to SLA in the 1970’s/80’s. His theory extremely influenced L2 teaching practice (Lightbown & Spada, 1999, p.38). He was of the opinion that innate mechanisms “continue to operate during SLL, and make key aspects of SLL possible, in the same way they make first-language learning possible.” (Mitchell & Myles, 2004, p.14) The Input Hypothesis Model or Monitor Model established by him has been discussed intensively. His theory consists of five hypotheses, Cook (2001, p.190):

1. The acquisition-learning theory…Krashen distinguishes between acquisition as an unconscious learning process and learning as a conscious learning process.
2. The monitor hypothesis…students only learn when they can check what they have acquired.
3. The natural order hypothesis…there is an order in which structures are acquired.
4. The affective filter hypothesis…there are individual variables which may disturb the SLA are filtered.
5. The input hypothesis…students only acquire a language by understanding the comprehensible input from the environment.

Some of Krashen’s hypotheses have still survived and today can be seen in major aspects of language teaching, e.g. the principle of emotional safeness (Butzkamm, in Timm (Ed.), 1998, p. 52) which is closely related to the affective filter hypothesis.

Since the 1980’s, many further theories have been established. For example, McLaughlin, a cognitive psychologist, offered the Information Processing Model (1987) which constitutes that learning begins with controlled processing of the target language and becomes more and more automatic. What is very important to mention concerning this model is the assumption that “language learning is the same as the learning of other skills such as driving a car.”(Cook, 2001, p.189) This contradicts with all the other theories, which have been established after the behaviourist theory. The latter also claimed that SLA functions in the same way as any other learning. Anderson in 1993 also used the behaviouristic learning theory in creating the Cognitive Behaviourist model ACTR. As Cook (2001, p.188) found its basis is to build up response strengths which are to be divided into a declarative memory and a procedural memory. Declarative stands for the individual information and procedural for what the student does, i.e. students get declarative facts better to known and thus incorporate them into their procedural memory to structure the amount of individual information.

Connectionism is one last psychological approach to SLA in recent time. This theory differs in so far from the ACTR model that the established strengths are processed simultaneously and not one after the other. The environment is seen as a factor of greater importance because learners learn eventually from it and hence widen their language knowledge. (Lightbown & Spada, 1999, p. 42 & Cook, 2001, p. 188)

As we have seen, investigations made progression. The approaches seem to tend into two directions - behaviouristic or cognitively undermined. Concerning our first question from the beginning we can conclude that there seems to be no `true´ approach which teachers can believe and thus follow the concerning methods, up to this point. Progression took place because existing theories were never fully satisfying, but neither are the latest ones. Some theories about L2 learning have gone in a complete circle with behaviouristic approaches at the forefront again. This raises the original question of whether there is a ‘true’ approach. We can determine that no single ‘true’ method has been found at the present time.

3. B. F. Skinner – his theory on learning

In most of the literature concerning the topic of SLA, discussions of the behaviouristic approach are only brief because most of its content is not incorporated in today’s teaching methods. In Ellis work on Second Language Acquisition and Language Pedagogy (1992, p.3) it is described as follows: “Learners learnt the L2 as a result of responding to stimuli and receiving feedback on the correctness of their productions. The principal mechanisms of learning were imitation, repetition and reinforcement. Successful learning occurred when the learner succeeded in forming new habits. Unsuccessful learning (which manifested itself in errors in learner production) was the result of negative transfer (interference) from the learner’s L1.” (Ellis, 1992, p.3) Howatt (1988) summarized the structuralism which underlies the behaviouristic approach:

1. The conviction that language systems consisted of a finite set of `patterns´ or `structures´ which acted as models … for the production of a finite number of similarly constructed sentences;
2. The belief that repetition and practice resulted in the formation of accurate and fluent foreign language habits;
3. A methodology which set out to teach `the basics´ before encouraging learners to communicate their own thoughts and ideas. (pp. 14-15; cited in Mitchell & Myles, 2004, p. 30)

These short summaries gave an overview on the behaviouristic approach. However, I want to go into more detail from Skinner’s standpoint because he is “a neo behaviourist because he added a unique dimension to behaviourist psychology.” (Brown, 1994, p. 77)

Skinner (1968, pp.1-8) stated that learning needs to be trained in the same way as muscles are trained, i.e. all learning behaviour has to be trained frequently through repetition, drill and rote learning to reach positive effects. As all the other approaches named before, Skinner’s theory should bring a change into the classrooms to improve learning. He constituted the importance of learning by doing, and wants students to be an active part in the lesson. Skinner found three variables to compose “contingencies of reinforcement under which learning takes place: (1) an occasion upon which behaviour occurs, (2) the behaviour itself, and (3) the consequences of the behaviour.” (Skinner, 1968, p.4) This means that whenever students are stimulated somehow they will response. Depending on the consequence of the response, i.e. positive or negative reinforcement, they are likely to repeat this behaviour. Skinner put his main emphasis on these consequences and not only on the stimuli as it is often described. This is called the operant conditioning and “within this model the importance of stimuli is deemphasized.” (Brown, 1994, p. 77) In Skinner’s opinion, positive reinforcement is the motor of teaching and hence learning. I.e., the stimulus that leads somebody to respond cannot always be identified and therefore the consequence is the stimulus. (Brown, 1994, p.77) Thorndike’s Law of Effect also “emphasizes the importance of reinforcing the learners´ responses by rewarding target-like responses and correcting non-target-like ones.”(Ellis, 1995, p.299)

As Brown (1994, p.77) put it, Skinner believed in the power of the reinforcement because positive reinforcement strengthens the behaviour and makes it more likely to occur again. For that reason Skinner (1968, pp. 13-30) criticized classrooms of those days in so far that children often only acted to avoid punishment because there was little reinforcement given by teachers. Reinforcement has to be given immediately but in many cases, the child’s response and the teacher’s reinforcement are intervened by time constraints. Another critical point concerning Skinner is that certain stimuli will never receive a response from the students, but they will end in anxiety, a feeling of guilt and fear because the student has experienced negative consequences once. This may lead to students who will not speak in L2 classrooms, e.g., and thus thy will not be able to learn anymore because they are not acting. “A very slight reinforcement may be tremendously effective in controlling behaviour if it is wisely used.” (Skinner, 1968, p.20)


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Second Language Learning Theories – The Behaviouristic Approach as the Initial Theory towards Modern Researches
University of Kassel
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Marie Louis Freyberg (Author), 2006, Second Language Learning Theories – The Behaviouristic Approach as the Initial Theory towards Modern Researches, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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