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u07d1 Language Acquisition - Skinner and Chomsky

In 1957, behaviorist B.F. Skinner wrote Verbal Behavior, an account of how language is
acquired. Noam Chomsky (1957), a young and little-known linguist at the time, wrote a review
in which he disputed Skinner's (i.e., behaviorists, empiricists) explanation, regarding the book as
"a reductio ad absurdum of behaviorist assumptions" (p. 26). Tomasello (2005) summarizes
Skinner's and Chomsky's positions:

[Skinner's] proposal . . . was that young children learn their "verbal behavior" using the
same garden-variety learning mechanisms they use to learn other behaviors. . . Skinner
proposed that young children learn pieces of language by means of instrumental
conditioning (based on principles of association) and that they generalize (based on
principles of induction) . . . . Chomsky argued that there are some principles of grammar
that are so abstract and, in a sense, arbitrary that children could not possibly learn them by
means of simple association and induction (p. 2).

In the late 1950s, this was a dramatic, near epiphanic, event. Some claim that the start of the
cognitive revolution can be traced back to Chomsky's willingness to take on the mighty
behavioral forces in psychology. What do you think about language acquisition and the degree to
which it is guided by nature and nurture? What evidence supports your point of view?

Please answer the discussion question by (1) referring to and integrating ideas presented in the
text and any supplemental readings; (2) citing outside resources if necessary to make your point;
and (3) following APA style guidelines for citations and references.

You will be evaluated on how well you can demonstrate that you understand the ideas presented
throughout the unit, including assigned readings, discussions, and independent investigations.
You will also be evaluated on the quality of your workits academic rigor, how well it shows
your ability to think critically, and how completely it covers the questions asked.

Response Guidelines

Respond to at least one other learner in a manner that advances the discussion in a meaningful
way. Your response is expected to be substantive in nature and reference the assigned readings,
as well as other theoretical, empirical or professional literature to support your views and
writings. Reference your sources using standard APA guidelines.


Chomsky, N. (1959). A review of B. F. Skinner's 'Verbal Behavior.' Language, 35, 2658.

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York, NY: Copley Publishing Group.

Tomasello, M. (2005 ). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Is language acquisition innate or the result of environmental stimulus? Whether language
acquisition is dependent on genetic (nature) or sociocultural environmental factors (nurture) has
been debated among researchers since the late 1950s. According to Sternberg & Sternberg
(2012), behaviorist B.F. Skinners reinforcement approach to language acquisition in his
landmark book Verbal Behavior (1957), which describes how language acquisition and usage are
only the result of environmental contingencies, was an ambitious, but pretentious development
that elicited a disparaging rebuttal from linguist Noam Chomsky (1959).


Chomskys (1959) review of Skinners theory emphasized the biological and creative aspects of
language acquisition (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). Moreover, he suggested that human beings
are innately equipped with a language faculty as an inherent and autonomous neurocognitive
system of generative grammar. In his work on syntax, Chomsky also emphasized the creative
ease of language acquisition based upon his theory of an underlying syntactical or deep structure
that is characteristic of all languages as a linguistic universal (e.g. color perception, Sternberg &
Sternberg, 2012, p. 407).

He also supported his view of innate language acquisition by emphasizing the superior language
and semantic processing abilities of humans over non-humans. If an animal had a capacity as
biologically advantageous as language but somehow hadnt used it until now, it would be an
evolutionary miracle like finding an island of humans who could be taught to fly (Chomsky,
1991 as cited in Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). Its important to note that Chomsky and other
proponents of the theory of innate language acquisition maintain a worldview scaffolded by the
naturalistic philosophy of Darwinian evolution.

Gardner (1985) in his theory of inherent multiple intelligences, concurred with Chomsky by
viewing his theory of innate language acquisition as an intrinsic function of a distinct linguistic
construct of intelligence. Each of the eight intelligences posited by Gardner has a separate
system of functioning that evolves in a maturation process over the life span. Thus, all children
acquire language in the same fashion through the maturation of an innate linguistic intelligence
system that interacts with other innate intelligences to produce overall intelligent performance
(Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). However, according to Gardner (1985), Chomsky postulated
that innate language capacities did not evolve gradually but were developed in one punctilinear
evolutionary step.

Neurobiological research also supports Chomsky and other proponents of innate language
acquisition. Aphasia which is a neurological impairment of language functioning is cited as
evidence that left hemispheric brain functioning involves innate language tasks. Moreover,
Wernickes and Brocas aphasia which constitute distinct impairments of producing and
comprehending language respectively, seem to suggest that these various areas of the brain play
a key role in the theory of an innate language faculty (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2012). Research
using brain imaging techniques suggests that from the first weeks of life the human brain
displays phonetic categorization and normalization abilities similar to those in adults adapted for
processing speech. According to Dehaene-Lambertz et al. (2006): It seems unlikely that the
influence of prenatal and postnatal auditory environment is sufficient to generate this complex
organization in only a few weeks of exposure.


As previously mentioned, B.F. Skinner was one of the strongest proponents of language
acquisition as a result of environmental contingencies that constitute a stimulus response cycle.
Linguistic input from parents facilitates language learning through a process of imitation that is
positively or negatively reinforced. Moreover, the human brain is far superior than non-human
and is therefore more capable of complex learning tasks.

Piagets constructivist theory basically states that children construct knowledge as they actively
participate in the learning process (Broderick, P. C., & Blewitt, P., 2006). He postulated that
internal cognitive factors only play a minor role in the overall cognitive and perceptual process
of actively engaging in environmental stimulus as a basis for specific stages of language
learning. Furthermore, whenever new information is introduced, a child does not store or learn
according to the true representation of the stimuli, but will actively attempt to organize the new
information. As a result, the application of Piagets approach entailed providing a rich
environment in the classroom for language learning.

In conclusion, both positions in the dialectic debate of nature vs. nurture with regards to
language acquisition seem to have merit. However, a dialectical synthesis position of a dynamic
collaboration of genetic and environmental influences that facilitates language learning seems
the most tenable. Research on the theory of linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
indicates that language is shaped and learned in the context of various cultures producing
distinctly different cognitive systems. However, one must also take into consideration that
substantive research has confirmed that the left hemispheric brain region consists of specific
domains required for language acquisition.

Anthony Rhodes
General Psychology PhD.


Broderick, P. C., & Blewitt, P. (2006) The Life span: Human development for helping
professionals (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Chomsky, N. (1959). A review of B. F. Skinner's 'Verbal Behavior.' Language, 35, 2658.

Dehaene-Lambertz, G., Pannier, L., Dubois, J. (2006). Nature and nurture in language
acquisition: anatomical and functional brain-imaging in infants. Trends in Neuroscience, (29):7.

Gardner, H. (1985). The minds new science: a history of the cognitive revolution. New York:
Basic Books.

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York, NY: Copley Publishing Group.

Sternberg, R. J., & Sternberg, K. (2012). Cognitive psychology (6th ed.). Belmont, CA:
Wadsworth Cengage Learning. ISBN 9781133313915