Language learning Mechanism in the light of Behaviourism

The behaviourist model of language acquisition came about in 1940-50s when a lot of research was being done on learning theory. B.F. Skinner is the one of the well-known behavioural theorist. According to this theory all human behaviour is learned.  When a person does something if it is positively reinforced its frequency will increase and if it is negatively reinforced its frequency will decrease and eventually stop. For example if a child touches a hot stove and as a result child gets pain, this will be negatively reinforced and child will learn this not to touch the stove.  Behaviourism suggests that more complex behaviours can also be learned in this way.

According to Skinner humans learns everything in this way of conditioning including language. Skinner believed that a child sees model of language in adult communication and try to imitate language, this behaviour is positively reinforced by adults. Skinner theorised that during language acquisition when child makes an error adult give the child negative reinforcement and when a child produces correct form the adult gives positive reinforcement thereby conditioning the child to use correct form of language.

In terms of word learning, behaviourists suggest that when a child learns to associate a word with object such as ball, the presence of object becomes stimulus for that word. Thus, once child know the word ball whenever he sees the ball it will activate the word in his mind, so he can easily say it.

In terms of learning sentences behaviourist believe that the child does this in the same manner as words or through technique of ‘successive approximation’. For example, a child hears “please pass the ball” but this is too complex so he will say “pass ball” instead.

As the child gets older the adults in his environment slowly shapes his utterance into an adult form through the use of modelling, imitation and reinforcement so that at last he uses the correct form. So child’s environment has effect on child is supported by this theory (Owens, 2008)

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