You are on page 1of 4

Tanvir's Blog
A blog for the comprehensive understanding of Literature, Applied Linguistics and ELT
The Behaviourist Theory
The Behaviourist Theory (also known Empiricism, Behaviourism, Behavioural Theory, Stimulus-response Theory) stands
among the major theoretical perspectives within the field of first language acuisition! "t #egan as a reaction against the
introspective psychology of the late $%
and early &'
century and dominated the study of learning throughout the first
half of the twentieth century! (lthough its ascendancy was #lurred #y the emergence of the "nnate Theory in the mid
century, still today much language learning programmes firmly stands on the foundation laid #y the Behaviourist
Theoretical Assumptions
The theoretical assumptions underlying the Behaviourist Theory are as follows)
*anguage learning is a ha#it formation resem#ling the formation of other ha#its! "n other words, *anguage is
learned in the way in which other ha#its are learned!
*anguage learning is nothing more than the acuisition of new #ehaviour or knowledge! "t takes place when
e+perience or practice causes a change in a person,s knowledge or #ehaviour!
*anguage learning is an e+ternal event, #ecause it involves an o#serva#le change in #ehaviour #rought a#out #y
the stimuli coming from the environment! "t does not involve any uno#serva#le change in mental knowledge! (ll
#ehaviours can #e e+plained without the need to consider internal mental states or consciousness!
-nly human #eings have the capacity for language learning! They acuire a language as discrete units of ha#its,
independently trained, not as an integrated system!
Background of the Theory
The #ehaviourist school of thought ran concurrent with the psychoanalysis movement in psychology in the &'
The Behaviourist Theory was first introduced in $%$. #y the (merican psychologist John B. Watson! /atson is credited #y
some with coining the term 0#ehaviourism0! /atson1s view was largely influenced #y the research of the 2ussian
physiologist Ivan P. Pavlovduring the early $%''s! The most influential version of this theory is put forward #y B. F.
kinner in $%3%! 4is version of Behaviourism is #est known as !adical Behaviourism! Skinner, sought to give ethical
grounding to #ehaviourism, relating it to pragmatism!
Types of Behavioural "earning # E+periments #y the #ehaviourists identify conditioning as a universal learning process!
5onditionings are primarily of two types, each yielding a different #ehavioural pattern)
$! $lassical conditioning# This conditioning was first descri#ed #y the 2ussian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, in $%'. through
his e+periment on dogs! The general idea of 6avlov1s e+periment is this) 6avlov presented dogs with food to e+amine their
salivary response! 4e rang a #ell just #efore serving the food! (t first the dogs did not salivate until the food is served!
4owever, when the #ell was rung at repeated feedings, the sound of #ell alone caused the dogs to salivate!
Thus in classical conditioning an unconditioned stimulus (food) is paired with a conditioned stimulus (#ell)! /hen they
repeatedly occur in pair, the conditioned stimulus acuires the capacity to produce a conditioned response (salivation)!
Su#seuently, the conditioned stimulus alone can produce a conditioned response!
Su#seuently, it was studied in infants #y John B. Watson! *ike 6avlov, he was originally involved in animal research, #ut
later #ecame involved in the study of human #ehaviour! /atson #elieved that humans are #orn with a few refle+es and
the emotional reactions of love and rage! (ll other #ehaviour is esta#lished through stimulus-response associations
through conditioning!
/atson demonstrated classical conditioning in an e+periment involving a young child ((l#ert) and a white rat! -riginally,
(l#ert was unafraid of the rat7 #ut /atson created a sudden loud noise whenever (l#ert touched the rat! Because (l#ert
was frightened #y the loud noise, he soon #ecame conditioned to fear and avoid the rat! The fear was generalised to
other small animals! /atson then e+tinguished the fear #y presenting the rat without the loud noise! Some accounts of
the study suggest that the conditioned fear was more powerful and permanent than it really was!
&! Instrumental or %perant $onditioning# E+panding on Watson&s #asic stimulus-response model, Skinner developed a
more comprehensive view of conditioning, known as operant conditioning!Skinner1s model was #ased on the premise that
effective language #ehaviour consists of producing responses (#ehaviours) to the correct stimuli (situation)! /hen
a response is followed #y a reinforcer (reward) then it is conditioned to occur again! Thus operant conditioning was
used #y Skinner to descri#e the effects of the conse'uences of a particular #ehaviour on the future occurrence of the
#ehaviour! 2einforcement and punishment are the core ideas of operant conditioning)
!einforcement# ( reinforcer is a stimulus (encouraging activity) that increases the freuency8occurrence of a response it
follows! The act of following a response with a reinforcer is called reinforcement! !einforcement (pri9e) can #e
classified into the following types#
(i) Positive !einforcement# 6ositive reinforcement is the encouragement of a desired response (#ehaviour) #y a pleasant
stimulus! "t increases the pro#a#ility of the reoccurrence of the same response to the same situation! :or e+ample# "f the
child produces an alternative which is appropriate to the situation, the mother will reward him8her with some sign of
approval (such as smiles, hugs, or food)! This approval or reward will encourage him to repeat the same response to the
same situation!
(ii) (egative !einforcement# ;egative reinforcement is the discouragement of an undesired response (#ehaviour) #y an
unpleasant stimulus! "t decreases the pro#a#ility of the reoccurrence of the same response to the same situation! :or
e+ample# "f the child produces an utterance which is inappropriate to the situation, he8she will not #e rewarded!
5onseuently, the child will not repeat the same response to the same situation!
Punishment# 6unishment is used to erase undesira#le #ehaviours #y presenting a distressing stimulus when the #ehaviour
occurs! Punishment can #e classified into the following types#
(i) Positive Punishment# (n undesira#le stimulus is received after a #ehaviour occurs! :or e+ample, if the learner fails to
follow the class then he will #e given detention!
(ii) (egative Punishment# ( desira#le stimulus is lost or removed after a #ehaviour occurs! :or e+ample, if the learner
fails to follow the class rules then he will not #e given any recess hour!
Thus, it is uite visi#le that the Behaviourist Theory (as propounded #y Skinner) is represented as a <stimulus = response =
reinforcement> chain! :or #etter understanding, this chain can #e demonstrated in the following illustration#
The Behaviourist Theory e+plains two major aspects! "t firstly e+plains how the child produces speech!
"t secondly e+plains how he8she understands speech! 6ositive and negative reinforcement contain various adult
utterances which function as discriminating stimuli for the production of the child1s responses (#ehaviours)! /hen the
child hears these adult utterances he8she tries to imitate them to produce his8her speech! The child earns the a#ility to
understand a speech when he8she #ecomes a#le to produce an utterance which is appropriate to the situation!
2einforcement can come from different sources! The mother is the primary source of reinforcement #ecause she has to
take care of the child almost all the time! The people around him8her can also provide reinforcement!
(lthough sound in many ways, the theory is not free from limitations! The shortcomings of this theory are as follows#
Firstly, the Behaviourist Theory completely ignores the in#orn aspect of human knowledge!
Secondly, the theory puts over emphasis on the role of imitation and ignores completely the creativity of the child,
making him8her somewhat passive viewer than actor in the process of language acuisition!
Thirdly, the Behaviorist Theory seems to #e somewhat mechanical in nature, since the child is considered a passive
Fourthly, it cannot develop the child1s pro#lem solving skills! The child may find himself8herself in a situation where the
stimulus to the correct response does not occur! "n such cases the child won1t #e a#le to respond!
Fifthly, it fails to e+plain how the child understands utterances he8she has never heard #efore, or produces new and
uniue utterances!
Finally, the Behaviourist Theory cannot e+plain how the child proceeds in his8her journey of language acuisition at such
a young age!
The Behaviourist Theory came under fierce attack when 5homsky proposed his "nnate Theory in $%3%! 5homsky1s theory
strongly proved that the child is not a ta#ula rasa7 rather he is #orn with an innate capa#ility to learn language!
;evertheless, along with all of its limitations, the Behaviourist Theory was a#le to govern the direction of the
psychological e+planation of language acuisition uite productively! (fter its emergence, this theory was passively
accepted #y the influential Bloomfieldian structuralist school of linguistics and produced some well-known models of
foreign language teaching, most nota#ly, the Audio "ingual -ethod! :or many years, the concepts from the Behaviourist
Theory formed the #asis of most of the learning theory applied in child rearing and in classrooms! 6arents and teachers
still find that, in many instances, individuals do learn when provided with the appropriate #lend of stimulus,
reinforcement, and punishments! Especially with small children and simpler tasks, #ehaviourist principles are often
effective! Thus, the contri#ution of the Behaviourist Theory as an e+planation of child language development cannot #e
overlooked altogether!
<Behaviorism!> :understanding! $%%?-&''$! :understanding! &' Sep &''? @ http)88www!funder-
standing!com8#ehaviorism!cfm A!
<Behaviorist *earning Theory!> "nnovative *earning! &''?! "nnovative*earning!com! &' Septem#er &''?
@ http)88www!innovativelearning!com8educationalBpsychology8#ehaviorism8inde+!htmlA!
<Behaviorist Theories of *earning!> S"* "nternational! $%%%!S"* "nternational! && (ugust &''?
@ http)88www!silinternational!org8A!
<5lassical 5onditioning (6avlov) !> *earning =Theories!com! &''?! *earning Theories!
@ http)88www!learning-theories!com8classical-conditioning-pavlov!html A!
<"nstructional Cesign D *earning Theory!> Eniversity of Saskatchewan! $%%F-&''?!
Eniversity of Saskatchewan!&& (ugust &''?@ http)88www!usask!ca8education8coursework8
<*earning Theories8Behavioralist Theories!> /ikipedia! &''?! /ikimedia :oundation, "nc!
&' Septem#er &''? @http)88en!wiki#ooks!org8wiki8*earningBTheories8BehavioralistBTheoriesA!