Re: Skinner on Language Learning

From: Harte, Tom (
Date: Thu May 23 1996 - 21:02:20 BST

- What is wrong with Skinner's explamation of language learning?

Skinnarian view - Behaviour is acquired simply through learning and
Like other areas of psychology Skinner explains the acquisition of
language through reward and punishmant. The reward for saying something
is being understood or replied to and by failing to be understood
(punishment) the child learns through feedback of the consequences
(trial and error). From this Skinner said that a child can acquire
The learning theory criticises this approach using the idea of
"negative evidence or information about which strings of words are not
real sentances in the language to be learnt". This is suggesting that
what the child hears and the feedback the child gets for what they say
is impoverished, (the trial and error evidence the child gets is
insufficient fot the child to derive the rules of language by trial and
error alone). The correction of non-grammatical sentances could come
from the parents, but it's been seen that this is not the case..
Children will often occupy a between stage of grammatical correctness
and incorrectness (Using normal and past tense versions of the same
word e.g. went and wented). If a parent isn't correcting this each time
then how do they learn which one should become part of their language.
So if the world isn't saying to stop then something else is.
Chomsky noticed "competance" in contradiction to behaviour. We behave
grammatically because we have a certain capacity to do so. This
capacity is based on a complex set of rules (Universal Grammar) which
cannot have been learnt through trial and error. These rules are
unconscious and inborn.
Language acquisition has shown that it's virtually impossible to show
how children could learn language unless you assume that they have a
considerable amount of non-linguistic cognitive machinery in place
before they start.

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