The basic theories of language acquisition

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

26 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. B.F. Skinner’s behaviouristic approach
a) Behaviourism
b) Skinner’s Theory
c) Chomsky’s Criticism

III. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar approach

IV. Piaget’s approach

V. The debate between Chomsky and Piaget

VI. Conclusion

VII. Bibliography

I. Introduction

The question how a child’s first language is acquired puzzles parents as well as linguists and psychologists, especially because children seem to solve this complex task so fast and seemingly effortless. There are many co-existing views and opinions concerning the issue of language acquisition, some complementary and some mutually excluding each other. Central in the debate on how the native language is acquired is the question of ‘nature or nurture’. Is there some inborn human capacity, which enables or facilitates language acquisition or is it just based on the influences of the environment?

The general ‘nature or nurture’ debate, concerned with the question whether humans are mainly influenced by their genetic predispositions or a product of their environment, has been going on for a long time, already. While, for example, Francis Galton (1870), a cousin of Charles Darwin, favoured the ‘nature’ point of view, the Behaviourist John Watson (1930) thought humans were only influenced by their environment. He believed that all differences between human beings were caused solely by personal experiences and what they learned from them. He even stated that if he was given a dozen healthy babies, no matter of which origin, he could make each of them become as he intended, just by varying their environment. (Lefrancois, p. 21f) In the context of linguistics, especially research in language acquisition, this question is of particular interest, as some phenomena seem hard to explain without assuming some kind genetic endowment for language acquisition, but, on the other hand, it is not easy to find convincing evidence for this assumption.

Most of the concepts and theories explaining how native languages are acquired go back to three different approaches put forward by Burrhus Federic Skinner, Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget, either by using their ideas as a starting point or by rejecting them and formulating a new or altered Hypothesis. This paper will try to present those three basic theories, also taking into account the contexts out of which they emerged, as to fully understand linguistic, like any other scientific, views and theories, they have always to be evaluated with respect to the scientific and cultural background they appeared in.

First it will try to show how Skinners concept of ‘verbal behavior’ with respect to language acquisition emerged in the development of behaviouristic theories. This will be followed by Chomsky’s criticism of Skinner’s ideas, leading to his own theory of language and language acquisition, which will be presented. Jean Piaget offers a cognitive approach to the question. His view will be described before comparing nativist and cognitivist ideas, concerning the points whether or not innate structures exist and in how far linguistic and cognitive development are interrelated, taking the opposed views of Piaget and Chomsky, the forerunners of many other important linguists, as an example.

II. B.F. Skinners behaviouristic approach

a) Behaviorism

The term “Behaviorism” was coined by John B. Watson (1913), who based his research on Ivan Pawlow’s findings concerning classical conditioning. Behaviourism is concerned with the objective and observable components of human behaviour and how it can be caused or changed. The overall aim of Behaviourism is to discover laws, which rule the relationship between stimuli and specific responses (reactions), taking into account resulting consequences. (Lefrancois, p.15, 17) According to behaviourist theories, learning is a change of behaviour induced by experience. (Lefrancois, p.30)

The most famous example of Classical Conditioning is ‘Ivan Pawlow’s dog’. Pawlow found out that some dogs in his laboratory did not only secrete saliva when they were fed, but that they started to do so even a bit earlier. In his following experiments, Watson showed that not only seeing the food caused secretion but also certain other stimuli, like a ringing bell, can have the same effect, if the incidents co-occurred often enough.

In these experiments, the food is the ‘unconditioned stimulus’ and the original ‘response’ was secretion. This reaction is natural, ‘unconditioned’, and therefore has not to be learned. If a bell is rang while feeding, as a ‘conditioned stimulus’, this bell alone can cause the dog to secrete saliva after a certain time, this being now a ‘conditioned response’. This way of learning is called ‘learning by stimulus substitution’. (Lefrancois, p.17f)

John Watson found out that classical conditioning does not only work with animals, but also with humans. He made ‘Little Albert’, an orphan boy who had to stay in hospital, fear his white pet rat, by using a frightening noise as unconditioned stimulus and he showed that also the need to urinate and the width of human vessels can be conditioned. (Lefrancois, p. 20f)

Further important contributions to this field of research were made by Edward Thorndike. He said that an organism, faced with a given situation, will respond in several ways, based on a trial and error strategy. If the first reaction leads to a positive, satisfying result, a neurological connection will emerge, which increases the probability of reacting to this stimulus in the same way, again. If the first reaction does not lead to a satisfying result the organism will go on trying other possible reactions. The more often a certain response follows a given situation, the deeper ‘engraved’ is the neurological connection, the organism ‘learns’. When this connection is not used repeatedly or negative consequences follow the learned behaviour, the connection will fade away, the organism will ‘forget’. It is also possible to transfer habitual reactions to new but similar situations, generalizing behaviour. (Lefrancois, p. 26ff) His theory of stimulus-response relations as neurological connections is called ‘Connectionism’. In contrast to Pawlow and Watson, Thorndike emphasized the importance of the consequences that follow a reaction. Reactions which co-occur with a satisfying situation increase the probability of the reaction to be repeated while a negative situation will diminish it. This idea of reward and punishment was highly important for the development of further learning theories. (Lefrancois, p. 26)

b) Skinner’s Theory

Burrhus Skinner’s ‘Operant Conditioning’ is based on the theory of Classical Conditioning. He was of the opinion, that only a small percentage of human and animal behaviour could be explained with this approach, as many occurring reactions would not follow clearly defined stimuli. This is why stimuli are not of much relevance in his learning theory. (Lefrancois, p. 32f) Skinner distinguishes two kinds of reactions: respondents and operants. Respondents are reactions to a stimulus, the organism directly responds to its environment. He calls this classical Stimulus-Response Conditioning ‘Type S Conditioning’. In addition to these respondents there are operants, reactions occurring without a stimulus. The organism deals with its environment in an active way. When these spontaneous reactions to a situation occur they can be altered through ‘reinforcement’. Skinner labels this kind of conditioning ‘Type R Conditioning’. (Lefrancois, p. 33)

If the reaction to some situation is followed by reinforcement the probability of a repetition of the same behaviour in similar circumstances is increased. Reinforcer and environment, together, can control the behaviour after a few repetitions. (Lefrancois, p. 34) Skinner distinguishes positive and negative reinforcement, with reinforcement being all stimuli that increase the probability of the occurrence of a certain reaction, positive by being added to the situation, negative by taken out of it. The same considerations hold true for punishment, which decreases the probability for the re-occurrence of a reaction, either by adding a negative stimulus after the reaction or by taking a positive away. (Lefrancois, p. 34f)

To train rats and pigeons to behave in a certain way, Skinner invented a strategy called ‘shaping’. An incidental behaviour that is somehow similar to the target behaviour or an aspect of a complex target behaviour is reinforced. The reinforcement is repeated and narrowed down to the actual target behaviour until the animal arrives at this trained behaviour subsequently. (Lefrancois, p. 41)

An important ability is to be able to generalise and discriminate different situations. Transferring a reaction to similar situations is necessary, because everybody is faced with numerous unknown situations every day and only reactions to very few of them can be learned in advance. Discrimination is the ability to distinguish between two similar but different situations, making people able to react in an appropriate way. (Lefrancois, p. 44)

According to Skinner, ‘verbal behaviour’ can be influenced by reinforcement as well. Greenspoon (1955) showed this in an experiment: a person was interviewed and asked to say some random words. He started talking, not knowing what to say, and each time he uttered a plural noun, he was reinforced by the interviewer saying ‘hm’. In the course of the experiment, the probability for plural nouns to occur increased remarkably. (Lefrancois, p. 42) With the same strategy it is possible to influence the topics of a conversation by reinforcing one topic, i.e. by showing interest when the topic is mentioned and saying nothing otherwise. (Lefrancois, p. 42)


Excerpt out of 26 pages


The basic theories of language acquisition
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
HS First Language Acquisition
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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First, Language, Acquisition, skinner, chomsky, piaget
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Lena Linden (Author), 2007, The basic theories of language acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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