5 Incredible facts about behaviorist theory of language

behaviorist theory

Many scientists and linguists have presented certain reasons for language acquisition up to now. The behaviorist theory, as a reaction against introspective psychology, is one of the psychological theories to explain first language acquisition. The particular emphasis of the behaviorist theory is on the relationship between the behavior and the received trust from the environment in which the first language acquisition naturally takes place.

The founder of the behaviorist theory

J.B. Watson presented the behaviorist theory in 1913; however, many of Watson’s colleagues rejected Watson’s explanation of the first language acquisition since the behaviorist theory lacked enough evidence of a specific behavior mechanism to be scientifically valid. In contrast, the behaviorist theory was supported by some famous figures including Leonard Bloomfield, O.N. Mowrer, B.F. Skinner, and A.W. Staats.

Watson dedicated his life to experimenting with emotional learning at an early age. Watson’s behaviorist theory is involved in the internal emotional and psychological conditions of language acquirers. According to his behaviorist theory, a learner’s physical responses provides insight into internal actions.

The behaviorist theory was against Freud’s theory ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.’ According to Watson’s behaviorist theory, we learn a language the same as animals do. Watson believed that our unconscious mind has its roots in our behavior and formed habits.

 In the behaviorist theory, Watson takes the behaviors which are measurable and observable into consideration and that is why Watson rejected the existence of the innate ability or competency of humans for language learning. Watson considered the environment surrounding a child as the main factor of shaping the child’s behaviors. Watson is known to be the founder of “behaviorism” which spread hugely and rapidly in America.

The principles of the behaviorist theory

The behaviorist theory can be called a theory of stimulus-response psychology. Babies acquire their mother tongue through a trial-and-error process; therefore, the reinforcement of the babies’ acceptable utterances gets stimulated by comprehension and approval from the educational world. The major principle of the behaviorist theory is analyzing the human normal behaviors in observable stimulus-response interaction and the association of the two between them; in this respect, the behaviorist theory emphasizes that language learning is the growth of habit formation.

According to the behaviorist theory, humans naturally acquire language habits at a very early age. The babblings of babies are the imitations of the uttered words in their surroundings; and when they utter the words correctly via their babbling, they usually get rewards and encouragement from the educational world.

As a result, the babies progress to produce more accurate exact utterances and group the syllables and words of their native language; and then further up to more advanced articulation and language production such as combining the sentences with the help of generalizations and analogy; however, many babies make lots of errors in the production of imitated speech.

behaviorist theory
behaviorist theory

By the age of five or six, the imitated speech composed of the babblings and mutterings turns into, socialized speech. Then, the socialized speech gradually gets internalized as implicit speech; in this case, most of the children’s utterances are distinguishable and very near to the adults’ utterances around the children. We can conclude at the “natural affinity” in children gets stimulated and developed to acquire the language of the educational world in which the children grow up.

As mentioned, the Behaviorist theory rejects the nativist principles or accounts of innate knowledge for natural language acquisition. The nativist major principles for language acquisition are irrational and unscientific. Behaviorists account knowledge as a repertoire of behavior; that is, the final result of interaction with the surrounding educational world through stimulus-response conditioning is behavior. The stimulus-response learning takes place as follows:

The occurrence of an event in the unconditioned stimulus or environment stimulates the creation of an unconditioned response from a learning organism. Then, the response gets reinforced by the following event in the environment, which is appealing to the recipient organism. As this cycle takes place a certain number of times, the association of the organism’s response with the reinforcement is gradually learned; as a result, the organism gives the same or a conditioned response to that same stimulus.

The popular experiment of the behaviorist theory

One of the most popular experiments on behaviorist theory is Pavlov’s Dogs. In this experiment, the ring is a stimulus for dogs; in this way, when the dogs hear the sound of the ring, they would be fed. With time, the dogs would be expecting food after hearing the sound of the bell; and that is why this experiment is one of the pieces of evidence supporting the behaviorist theory which emphasizes that all the stimuli are the drivers which determine our actions.

The example of the behaviorist theory

We all have grown up and are educated with the approaches of the behaviorist theory to some extent. In the classroom, students, as passive participants, first get input from their teachers who regularly teach how and what to respond to certain stimuli. In this cycle, repetition, positive reinforcement, encouragement, motivation, and appropriate ways of error correction play vital parts in the students’ behavioral learning.

behaviorist theory
behaviorist theory

In addition, the teachers have associated the behavioral learning strategy techniques in their teaching curriculum in many forms such as drills, questions and answers, guided practices, and regular reviews. Such patterns help students to acquire new habits easily step by step. Teachers also utilize verbal and non_verbal positive reinforcements such as clapping or praising to stimulate their students to retain the new information for a long time.

The counterparts of the behaviorist theory

The most controversial principle of the behaviorist theory is that verbal (language), non-verbal (general learning), L1 acquisition, and L2 acquisition are only possible via forming habits. Therefore, whether L1 acquires or L2 acquires must receive enough input, encouragement from the environment to learn the language perfectly. The more L1 and L2  have similarities, the easier the process of L2 takes place and vice versa.

As mentioned, the behaviorist theory was unfortunately rejected by many people since it can not be considered a complete model for the investigation of language acquisition. There are some counter-arguments against the working principles of the behaviorist theory:

  1. “Imitation, the rewarding system, and reinforcement “, as the basic strategies of language learning in the behaviorist theory, can not be the only causes of natural language acquisition although they are very useful for the retention of the new vocabulary and information. The children’s competencies and abilities to learn a language are different. No one learns a thing in the same way; for example, some children learn best by repeating and using the new words constantly while some children learn best by hearing the new words a lot.

The rate of imitation of the new sounds, structures, phrases, etc. also differs. Some children require to imitate and repeat the new sounds many times while some children are so smart that they can memorize the new sounds with a few times of imitating and repeating by heart. Imitation can not be the main underlying principle of first language acquisition since some children do learn their first language so fast even though they are dumb.

Some parents or adults are unattentive towards kids’ language learning progress. They may not correct all the kids’ errors well and reward the kids for all the correct utterances; moreover, the number of the corrected models is too few and limited to cause kids to learn the first language. Adults themselves usually make lots of errors and mistakes in their common speech; nevertheless, kids gradually can distinguish the correct forms, structures, and grammar of the first language from the incorrect ones.

Besides, the factor “rewarding” can not be the main motivator for kids to learn their mother tongue. As mentioned, kids do not always get rewards for their acceptable utterances from the educational world. Therefore, the three mentioned factors of the behaviorist theory fail to provide enough explanation and reasons for the principles of first language acquisition.

  1. In the behaviorist theory, the three factors in the development of analogical learning in children are mostly generalization, reward, and conditioning. But, a settled set of rules and drills, as the main motivators for constructing phrases, clauses, and sentences for the first language acquisition process in the behaviorist theory, are instead thought to be the obstructers in the way to the instinctive production of language. Therefore, intrinsically oriented language learning in children may not mostly rely on the “habit formation exercises”.
  1. The creative way of learning the first language may get harm from the obstructions in the way of instinctively-based learning. Mastering a language intrinsically usually takes a long time. Learners are required to repeat and drill the new structures, words, phrases, etc. consciously in the long term so that they can build up an effective linguistic intuition. If the learners are not creative enough before getting to the level of the effective linguistic intuition to use the first language properly in real new situations, then they face a delay in the process of the intrinsic learning due to the prior settled set of rules and drills.
  1. There is no satisfactory explanation over the definite rate and effect of social influence and in traction on the first language learning progress in the behaviorist theory. It can not be claimed how much surroundings promote the first language learning in children for sure according to the behaviorist theory. Observing and measuring the effects of the environment on first language acquisition is impossible and that is why the behaviorist theory is can be completely considered scientifically valid.
  1. As mentioned earlier, learning styles differ from person to person. The determining elements such as ” background knowledge, social interaction, IQ, language learning competencies, and so on” are different in language learners. According to Chomsky, Humans must possess some innate capacities predisposing them to discover the basic patterns in language.
  1. The principles of the behaviorist theory can only explain the early stages of natural language acquisition. They are mostly comprehensive explanations for animal experimentation and learning. The language learning process in humans is too complex to be observed between stimulus and response and be encompassed in the behaviorist theory. Human language, unlike animal interaction, is too complicated to learn through habit formation; Therefore, the behaviorist theory can not be considered as a complete comprehensive theory of first language acquisition.


All in all, one of the popular theories to explain the language acquisition process is the behaviorist theory brought up by Skinner and Watson. Human behavior, unlike animal interaction, is too complex to be encompassed in the principles of behaviorist theory. Therefore, we can not regard the behaviorist theory as a perfect explanation for the process of language acquisition since it is not fully developed and scientific. We can not generalize and claim that all humans learn a thing by patterning and habit formation in the same way.


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