You are on page 1of 8

Language is a system of formalized symbols, signs, sounds, and gestures which forms

the medium of communication for human beings. Be it verbal or non-verbal, language happens
to be a tool which expresses ones inner thoughts on a perceived matter. It consists of words
that are used by a community with varying rules of grammar, syntax, sentence structure and
vocabulary and is regarded as a vital catalyst in a childs growth. Language development is said
to be of much importance for children as it also facilitates teaching and learning, besides being
closely related to reading and writing skills. (Berk, 2001) Many theories on this matter have
emerged and are continued to be further expanded by linguists. However, there are two
particular theories which have always managed to spark a controversial debate on the topic,
language development. They are no other than the theories behaviorism and nativism.
The theory behaviorism was proposed by Burrhus Frederic Skinner (B.F. Skinner), a
psychologist. He was born on the 20th of March 1904 in Pennsylvania. Being a novelist at first,
he finally decided to have a change of career and thus, enrolled in a psychology graduate
program in the Harvard University after getting inspired by the works of Watson and Pavlov. He
then obtained a doctorate in Psychology and began working on ideas of human behavior. He
became one of the leaders of behaviorism and his work contributed immensely to experimental
psychology. The theory on nativism on the other hand, was proposed by Avram Noam Chomsky,
an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist and activist. He was born on the 7 th of
December 1928 in Pennsylvania too. Chomsky received his doctorate in Linguistics from the
University of Pennsylvania in the year 1955. In addition to his work in linguistics, he has written
on war, politics, and mass media, and is the author of over 100 books. Chomsky has been
described as the Father of Modern Linguistics and a major figure of analytic philosophy.

(B.F. SKINNER)

(NOAM CHOMSKY)

According to the behaviorism theory, the verbal behavior in a child is determined and
influenced by the environment surrounding him which acts as a stimulus in reinforcing and
strengthening within time, due to frequently occurring events.(B.F. Skinner, 1957) The skills of
learning a language is considered to be same as how a child learns to play the piano or learns
how to dance. The language development of a child solely depends on the interaction with the
people around him. Since kids are given constant guidance and much care since infancy, an
early exposure such as this enables the children to master the language skills. This means that
the behaviorists believe that only through relationships and interactions with the environment
around a child, language can be developed. According to Berko Gleason (2000) and Hoff
(2003), the support and active involvement of the parents and teachers act as important agents
in helping a child to develop his language skills. Since the behaviorists believe that a childs
cognitive abilities are a result of learning from experience, only observable behaviors are
studies in this field and no attention is given to unobservable mental representations.
The nativism theory on the contrary, is defined as the belief that knowledge of language
is inborn within a child. Noam Chomsky has made a number of strong claims about language
and suggests that language is an innate faculty. According to this view, a childs brain is born
with the ability to acquire language and capability of linguistic innovation. A nativist truly believes
that the innate source is the tool that triggers a child to learn and develop in language skills.
(Schopler & Mesibov, 1985) This belief is highly regarded by theorists of nativism because
children are said to be exposed to very little correctly structured language as when people
converse, they often change their minds and make slips of the tongue. Besides, children are
believed not to simply imitate and copy the language that they hear to, uttered around them.
They also do not learn from repetition of phrases and sayings as the behaviorists believe but
instead, rely on grammar which forms the correct structure of sentences. Thus, the nativist
perspective argues that humans are biologically programmed to gain knowledge and recently,
Steven Pinker claimed that this ability is actually hard-wired in the genes.
It is clear that behaviorists do not agree with the nativists theory of children being born
with an innate knowledge of language because B.F. Skinner (1957) proposed that organisms
are first introduced into the world as blank slates. The term blank slates carries the meaning
that individuals are born without built-in mental content and that their knowledge comes
from experience and perception. In other words, when babies are born into the world, they do
not possess any form of knowledge including language skills. This means that the language
acquisition by children solely depends on the upbringing and nurture by the parents and
2

teachers. Understanding on this matter is further enhanced through examples provided by Hart
and Risley (1995), where they found that children whose parents are of a high social
stratification in the professional world develop their language skills even rapidly compared to
children with parents who are of the low social status. This is because parents who are
socioeconomically lower tend to communicate and elaborate lesser about a matter or incident,
during their conversation with their children. Thus, this proves that B.F. Skinner and his fellow
compatriots believed that language development among children is nurtured.
In contrast to this, the nativists state that language skills exist in children naturally
because they describe infants as beings who are born within the smart-baby tradition. This
term simply means that every new-born baby has an innate learning mechanism that enables a
child to figure out how the language works. (Noam Chomsky, 1957) According to these
theorists, the speed and reliability with which kids learn their first language proves that children
are not blank slates after all. As ironic as it may seem, kids are actually specially equipped for
picking up language, as if they had the basic structure of language implanted into their brains,
right from the beginning. This is further emphasized by the question that always remains a
mystery to everyone; How did an individual learn his first language? If one thinks that children
were taught to speak their first language by their parents just as how they were helped with
tying their shoelaces and riding their bike, then, what explains the usage of past tenses and
passive sentences by these children when conversing in their first language? There is surely no
parent who would go to the extent of teaching their toddlers as young as three, about tenses
and sentence structures, just to help them with their language skills! Children were not taught to
neither walk nor talk but surprisingly, they are able to do so accordingly. This is exactly why the
nativists claim that children are already born with a set of rules about language in their heads
which they refer as the 'Universal Grammar'. The universal grammar is the basis upon which all
human languages build and this is how children are able to use the correct tenses and structure
during a conversation, most of the time.
In the eyes of B.F. Skinner, language is acquired by children through operant
conditioning. This means that the environment serves as a stimulus which helps a child to
develop his language skills. The environment where children grow up and the interaction
between them and the people around them will strongly affect the childrens speech. For
example, a study conducted showed that children whose parents are deaf did not develop
normal language skills. (Sachs, Bard & Johnson, 1981) This proved that the environment does
play a significant role in childrens language development. In light of this, B.F. Skinner believed
3

in the act of reinforcement, once a response to the stimulus provided id given. This act is further
broken down into two branches which are positive reinforcement and also negative
reinforcement. When a child makes progress with his pronunciation and language skills, parents
and teachers should play their role by complimenting him or treating him to a small reward. This
action is taken in terms of positive reinforcement so that, the child feels appreciated and is
motivated to put in more efforts and excel even better at his language skills. Vice versa, when a
child makes mistakes in his speech, parents and teachers should use the negative
reinforcement method to correct his mistake and teach him the right things instead. Using this
method would ensure that the child learns his mistake and does not repeat it again. This way,
children would be able to develop their language skills accordingly.
Nativist Noam Chomsky too has his own theory on how language is acquired by children
but his view is more of a scientific measure as it explains language acquisition based on
biological adaptation and natural selection. The nativists view which is more rational and
factual, differs from the behaviorists view which is considered to be philosophical. (Schophler
and Mesibov, 1985) Noam Chomsky came up with the idea of a language organ, which is
known as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). This device refers to a brain mechanism
which is specialized for detecting and learning rules of language. Humans are said to have a
specialized language organ in the brain to carry out the complex task of learning language.
According to Chomsky, the LAD contains an innate knowledge of the Universal Grammar, also
known as the language rule systems that are common across all languages. When language is
heard, the LAD analyses the language to determine its general type of grammatical construction
system. As soon as the basic grammar of the language is identified, the child can easily extract
important linguistic information and thus, acquire language. This explains why all nativists agree
that a physiologically based LAD exists and believe that the role of the environment is not to
shape or train verbal behavior, but instead to initiate the maturation of the LAD. (Bohannon and
Bonvillian, 1997 & Saffran, Werker, and Werner, 2006)
It is for sure that both these two theories have its own implications to make the teaching
and learning process in class even effective. Since behaviorism is all about learning from
experience and the environment, teachers can make full use of this theory by having activities
that give concrete experiences for students to sharpen their language skills. For instance,
teachers can hold story-telling sessions whereby each student has to share his own story on a
certain topic of his choice, with the class. This activity would not only be useful for the story
teller but also for the listeners as they will tend to listen actively to their friends with more
4

interest because it is scientifically proven that students are more inclined towards listening to
stories and what makes them more excited to learn is the fact that their own friends are posing
as the story-tellers. Just imagine how much they can develop in their language skills through
this activity when each of their friend shares his story with the class. Not only that, speech
among students can also be improved by read-aloud sessions. Teachers play a very vital role
here as they should assist the students and expose them to new, unfamiliar words. Emphasizing
more on these new words by explaining its meaning using simple words and teaching students
the correct way of pronouncing them correctly according to its phonemes would be of great help
to the students in widening their vocabulary. It is also suggested that teachers use colourful
illustrations and also actions to shed more light on the meaning of complex words. This method
would attract the students attention and result in them memorizing the words even rapidly,
especially when they are able to recall the visions of the words in their minds.
Apart from that, the behaviorism theory can be implemented through instructional
strategies. This term simply means that teachers use certain strategies to help students learn
and meet or exceed the standards being assessed. Effective instructional strategies would meet
the developmental needs and learning styles of all students in the classroom. Thus, it is high
time teachers used creativity and pupil-centered learning methods in class whereby fun
activities are organized in order to engage students in the learning process. Some of the ways
are by having role plays, video demonstrations, discussion, illustrated diagrams, and step-bystep review on a certain content of the subject. In addition, since students feel comfortable
learning among their peers, teachers should make full use of this by pairing the less proficient
child with another child who is an outspoken extrovert. This way, these students get to
brainstorm and exchange ideas together which surely would result in tremendous improvement
of the language skills among them, especially for the child with poor language development.
Teachers should also provide the students with golden opportunities to actively use
language during their learning sessions in class. For example, teachers can divide students into
groups whereby answers for each exercises done are discussed among them. This directly
improves their language skills as each student would try his best to defend his answer by giving
his own thoughts and rational on why his answer is correct. After the discussions are carried out
in groups, the same should be done at the class level where each group sends a representative
to share and present their answers to the class. This type of learning trains students to think out
of the box from every aspect and thus, is sure to develop their language skills when they have
small debates among themselves on why their answer should be chosen.
5

The reflective process should also be given of much importance by the teachers.
Reflection leads to growth of the individual morally, personally, psychologically, and emotionally,
as well as cognitively. (Branch and Paranjape, 2002) Having sessions where students are asked
to share their thoughts on how each activity helped them or how they felt about engaging
themselves in the activity organized would give an insight to each of them on how they are
developing from time to time in terms of language skills. Students would get to monitor their
progress for themselves as they improve on their language skills and are able to talk more
confidently using good pronunciation in front of the class, within time. At the same time, here is
where the teacher plays another major role in developing the speech and language skills among
the students. Teachers should take the initiative to implement the positive and negative
reinforcement in order to motivate students to try even harder next time. It is important that
teachers praise and compliment the good efforts showed by the students from time to time.
However, teachers should always bear in mind to be careful when using the negative
reinforcement in class by avoiding harsh words because children are very sensitive and thus,
their feelings should always be taken care of, no matter how strong-hearted they may seem.
Failure to do so would result in those students to shun away from the class and eventually, from
language development too.
As behaviorism is the concept where students learn by observing their surrounding, it is
important that teachers set a good example in class. They should portray a good command of
the language used and should avoid from making slips of tongue or grammar mistakes. This is
because students regard teachers highly and would resort to following any of the actions
showed by their teachers. Therefore, it is very important for the teachers to take good care of
their mannerisms and language usage in class. Portraying good elements would result in the
little ones picking up and following the same examples set by their teachers and it would surely
benefit them in the aspect of language development.
Under the nativism theory, since it is believed that students have an innate knowledge of
language within them, teachers should make it a point to use the full potential of the students to
help them with developing their language skills. For instance, teachers should find an interesting
topic to discuss about and leave it to the students to initiate discussion among themselves in a
big group. During this session, it is best if teachers do not help out their students, but instead
observe them from far to monitor the language skills in each of them. This type of discussion will
engage the students in the thinking process and they will come up with fruitful ideas generated
by their inborn knowledge, as suggested by the nativists.
6

Apart from that, as it is believed that with the existence of an innate knowledge, students
would be able to portray a great openness when it comes to learning, teachers should make full
use of this chance by allowing these students to conduct researches about a particular subject,
on their own. This would further sharpen their knowledge and put their potentials to full use.
Besides, teachers should also try to increase the standard of the learning process in class by
introducing complex topics once in a while because nativists believe that childrens innate
knowledge helps them to grasp things faster. Thus, it certainly would be of great benefit to the
knowledge acquisition process when these students are exposed to more complex words and
sentence structures as they would be able to master them easily. This way, students would
certainly be able to develop their language skills rapidly and effectively.
In a whole, it is found that both the theories behaviorism and nativism, proposed by B.F.
Skinner and Noam Chomsky respectively are equally as important in a childs language
development. These two elements are inter-related and are both needed in order to facilitate the
language development among children. Therefore, both theories should be put to full use by
parents and also teachers in educating their children. True enough, children cannot be expected
to be able to speak as fluently as an adult within a short period of time, just because they are
able to practice both theories in their everyday life. However, it is vital to have both these
theories present in a childs learning environment. This way, it is guaranteed that every child
would be able to explore his inner gift and potentials effectively, and soon be on the path of
becoming a great speaker of all time!