Skinner on Language Learning

From: Laud, Emma (
Date: Thu May 23 1996 - 13:12:32 BST

What is wrong with Skinner's Explaniation of language learning?

Skinner suggests that we learn language through being shaped. This is
done by trial and error and reward feedback. An example we can look at
is when a child babbles and imitates gramatically correct words it
hears. When the child repeats this word correctly Skinner says they are
rewarded through positive feedback.

However, a child hears and sees too little to learn syntax (the rules
based on arbitary shape manipulation) through reward and punishment. A
child can not possibly learn every possible combination and permutation
of gramatically correct sentences - there are just too many. A child
does know how to manipulate words and symbols in a sentence in order to
make it gramatically correct even though it may never have seen the
sentence before. So if this ability is not learnt through reward and
non-reward as Skinner suggests, then it must be a process we are born
with, which then leads us to look at Universal Grammar, (the ability to
recognise correct/incorrect symbols). If we are born with this ability
it does indeed put hold to Skinner's theory that we learn all that we
know in language through shaping by trial and error and rewards and
non- rewards. It may be so that we learn new words/symbols through
Skinner's explanation of language learning but we are born with the
ability to manipulate symbols and not as Skinner suggests.

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