EML504 Language & language development
Module 1 Understanding approaches to TESOL
Overview | Introduction | Skinner | Chomsky | Sociolinguistics | Interactionism | Language and culture | Social learning theory | Module 2

Theories of language  
Skinner's theory - language as verbal behaviour

Skinner's seminal work, Verbal Behaviour (1957), begins with a chapter called, "A functional analysis of verbal behaviour". However, you should be aware that his theory is very far from the functional, or sociocultural, approach to language, which is followed in this subject. You will also become aware that the antecedents of the sociocultural approach to language which underpin this subject, preceded the work of B. F. Skinner by several decades. Nevertheless, this section begins with an introduction to B. F. Skinner's theory of language as 'verbal behaviour' (1957). This is partly because his learning theory was transposed into language teaching methodologies prior to that transposition of the work of linguistic anthropologists and linguists to language pedagogies; and partly because Skinner's theory has had such definite, and enduring, influences on language teaching. The residual echoes of his theory can be heard every time one of us mentions 'positive reinforcement' (or 'negative reinforcement', for that matter) and his theory is operational every time one of us includes a teaching practice which begins with drills and grammar study decontextualised from meaning. Skinner rejected the very idea of 'meaning'. Skinner's view of 'meaning' can be seen in his comment which follows:

As Jespersen [a significant linguist and grammarian whose major work, Language, was published in 1922] said many years ago, "The only unimpeachable definition of a word is that it is a human habit." Unfortunately, he felt it necessary to add, "an habitual act on the part of one human individual which has, or may have, the effect of evoking some idea in the mind of another individual." Similarly, Betrand Russell asserts that "just as jumping is one class of movement...so the word 'dog' is [another] class," but he adds that words differ from other classes of bodily movements because they have "meaning". In both cases something has been added to an objective description (Skinner 1957: 13).
I draw your attention to: It is probably fair to say that Skinner did not deny the existence of "meaning"; he certainly accepted that we do ask, "What do you mean?" (Skinner 1957: 9); and he acknowledged that 'the answer is frequently helpful'. He accepted that seeking clarification, has 'an important place in every sort of intellectual endeavour'. But he went on to argue:
But the explication of verbal behaviour should not be allowed to generate a sense of scientific achievement. One has not accounted for a remark by paraphrasing "what it means" (Skinner 1957: 9).
Trying to sort out Skinner's theory of 'meaning' is very difficult because he would only consider meaning in terms of observable behaviours which might be used to account for the interconnections of variables which established and maintained the behaviour. He wrote:
The extent to which we understand verbal behaviour in a "causal" analysis is to be assessed from the extent to which we can predict the occurrence of specific instances and, eventually, from the extent to which we can produce or control such behaviour by altering the conditions under which it occurs. In representing such a goal it is helpful to keep certain specific engineering tasks in mind. How can the teacher establish the specific verbal repertoires which are the principal end-products of education? How can the therapist uncover latent verbal behaviour in a therapeutic interview? How can the writer evoke his [or her] verbal behaviour in the act of composition? how can the scientist, mathematician, or logician manipulate his verbal behaviour in productive thinking? (Skinner 1957: 3).
Skinner certainly acknowledged these questions were complex and created many problems; but I suggest that even in the acknowledgement he took a reductionist position, and one which quite explicitly places the teacher in the role of manipulator and controller. For example, he reduced learning a language to the concept of a "verbal repertoire", as though language itself is a limited, circumscribable task to be used in a performance. Then he specified someone outside of the learner (the teacher is specifically mentioned, along with "we") who will "produce or control" behaviour by "altering conditions under which it occurs". Skinner did acknowledge that, "Stimulus control,..., is never perfect", because, "Verbal behavior is probably never completely independent of the condition of a particular speaker"....nor, he seemed to suggest,  is it independent of listeners (Skinner 1957: 147), who act as potential 'reinforcers'.  In fact, Skinner suggested the "stimulus control" might be "distorted", because of some states of the speaker or audience. In that case he described the "response" as "subjective," "prejudiced," biased," or "wishful" (Skinner 1957: 147). 'Reinforcers' might be understood as 'consequences'. He began Verbal Behaviour (1957) with the paragraph:
Men [and women] act upon the world, and change it, and are changed in turn by the consequences of their action. Certain processes, which the human organism shares with other species, alter behaviour so that it achieves a safer and more useful interchange with a particular environment. When appropriate behaviour has been established, its consequences work through similar processes to keep it in force. If by chance the environment changes, old forms of behaviour disappear, while new consequences build new forms (Skinner 1957: 1). (Emphasis added.)
Sometimes undergraduate students conflate Skinner's notion of language as "verbal behaviour" with the sociocultural view of language as a "mode of action", or as "social and cultural practice". Admittedly, there are some odd overlaps between the two positions; for example, Skinner did not believe there are pre-existing meanings which we express in language. That is, Skinner did not subscribe to language as a "conduit" which expresses something outside of language. That is a view also held by sociocultural theorists. But, nevertheless, the two theoretical positions are far, far apart. Thus: It is important to know that Skinner's ideas derived from the school of behavioural psychology, which explained behaviour in terms of Stimulus (S) Response (R) and Reinforcement (R) whereby an organism was conditioned to act in a certain way. That school of psychology was, in many ways, based on a rejection of another school of psychology which drew on the processes of introspection. But even more importantly, much of the work of behavioural psychologists was to do with shaping the behaviours of animals (in confined conditions); the outcomes of which were then extrapolated to humans. Even Skinner's theory of 'verbal behaviour' was based on the incremental changes to animal's behaviour in what is sometimes called 'a Skinner box'. In his study of animal 'learning', Skinner developed the idea of operant conditioning whereby a creature, rat or pigeon, might make a chance move which was rewarded, or 'reinforced' so that it moved incrementally towards the response its controllers (my word) were targeting. So, a pigeon might eventually learn to peck the food button; a rat might learn to press more heavily on a lever to gain food because random actions which approximated the desired actions were reinforced. There was obviously a great deal of studied patience on the part of the researchers and tiny incremental changes in the creatures' behaviours.

Skinner applied these studies to 'verbal behaviour'. He wrote:

the basic processes and relations which give verbal behaviour its special characteristics are now fairly well understood. Much of the experimental work responsible for this advance has been carried out on other species, but the results have proved to be surprisingly free of species restrictions. Recent work has shown that the methods can be extended to human behaviour without serious modification. Quite apart from the possibility of extrapolating specific  experimental findings, the formulation provides a fruitful new approach to human behaviour in general, and enables us to deal more effectively with that subdivision called verbal (Skinner 1957: 3). (Emphasis added.)
The following text from an Internet site developed by an American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is a fair summary of Skinner's theories and how they have been extrapolated to teaching language:
With pigeons, he developed the ideas of "operant conditioning" and "shaping behavior." Unlike Pavlov's "classical conditioning," where an existing behavior (salivating for food) is shaped by associating it with a new stimulus (bell ringing), operant conditioning is the  rewarding of a partial behavior or a random act that approaches the desired behavior. Operant conditioning can be used to shape behavior. If the goal is to have a pigeon turn in a circle to the left, a reward is given for any small movement to the left. When the pigeon catches on to that, the reward is given for larger movements to the left, and so on, until the pigeon has turned a complete circle before getting the reward. Skinner compared this learning with the way children learn to talk -- they are rewarded for  making a sound that is sort of like a word until in fact they can say the word. Skinner believed other complicated tasks could be broken down in this way and taught. He even developed teaching machines so students could learn bit by bit, uncovering answers for an immediate "reward." They were quite popular for a while, but fell out of favor.  Computer-based self-instruction uses many of the principles of Skinner's technique. 

Skinner expressed no interest in understanding the human psyche. He was as strict a behaviorist as John Watson, and he sought only to determine how behavior is caused by  external forces. He believed everything we do and are is shaped by our experience of punishment and reward. He believed that the "mind" (as opposed to the brain) and other such subjective phenomena were simply matters of language; they didn't really exist (PBS/WGBH 1998 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/bhskin.html  [Accessed 5 May 2001]

Additional Link:
B.F. Skinner 1904-1990
(Accessed 7 March 2001)
Structural linguistics and behaviourism

Closely related to behaviourist approaches to language are the approaches derived from Structural linguistics. Structural linguists sought to describe the unique structural elements of individual languages.  They rejected the idea of grammar as prescription and the application of the grammar of one language, for example, Latin, or German, to another, such as English (Lamberts 1960 in Wilson (Ed) 1967: 3-9).  Structural linguists aimed to identify phonological, morphological and vocabulary classes and functions of individual languages, seeking to codify the unique structural features of each language at the smallest unit of meaning. Their attention was the fine details of linguistic structures and, as such fitted easily with the "bottom-up" approaches of Behaviourist approaches to language teaching.

Structural linguists have given us a detailed account of phonological, morphological structures of languages. Although the structural elements of a  language are not the whole story, and are quite inadequate as a basis for a language teaching pedagogy (Savignon 1983), they are, nevertheless very important to language teachers. The knowledge of  phonology and morphology is one tool for identifying students' learning progress and needs in spoken and written modes.
Phonology is treated in three traditional parts:

Phonetics  -  the study of the actual vocal sounds used by speakers.

Phonemes are the smallest units of meaning in the sound systems of a language. They are the sounds which we identify with different meanings, so the bi-labial plosives [p] and [b] are formed in exactly the same way by blocking of the breath by closed lips and, but, in one is "voiceless" and the other is "voiced". If you say each sound with your fingers on your throat you will be able to feel the vibrations as you say [b]. In English the difference means a difference in meaning. However, the fricative [l] at the beginning of "light" is quite different from the fricative [l] at the end of "dull" are said in quite different ways in the mouth. In the first the tongue tip is against the ridge of the teeth, in the other the tongue is lifted up and back and pressed towards the soft palate. Say both words! One is a "light" [l] and the other is a "darl" [l]. In other languages such  difference might discriminate meanings, In English they do not.

Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language. There are "free morphemes" and "bound morphemes".
Free morphemes are base words, as in "cat", "dog", "mouse", "house", "goose", "jump", "write", "sing", "walk". These words are each one morpheme.
Bound morphemes are grammatical inflections, showing, for example, plurality and tense, as in "cat-s", "dog-s", "m-i-ce", "house-s", "g-ee-se". These words are two morphemes. In irregular forms the morpheme is usually called an  infix.
Morphemes are also involved in the development of compound words and are a representation of the historical origins of words.

Such knowledge will help you identify which syntactic and phonological rules students have internalised and which they need to give further conscious attention. For example, just as in first language learning we learn the morphological pattern for forming the past tense verb, ("-ed") and regular plural forms ("-s") (and overgeneralise them) before we consistently use the irregular forms, so, too, in second language learning. Such knowledge helps to make sense of errors as stages in "acquisition" and is also useful for raising students' consciousness of which features it will be productive to attend to. However, there are also some patterns in the order in which morphemes are learnt, which are significant. (Nunan 1995: 194-196). While we might them assume that we should teach morphemic structures in the order in which we are able to use them, this seems not to be the case.


Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., Collins, P. & Blair, D. (19) Articulatory phonetics, pp. 37-51; The phonetic alphabet, pp. 52-62; Phonemes: the phonological units of language, pp. 73-79; Morphology: The words of the language. pp. 114-127.
These extracts have been chosen to give you reference material for understanding important linguistic tools to do with knowledge of phonology, phonetics (including the articulatory system) and morphology. You will find such knowledge is useful in understanding students' efforts with the sound patterns of the language, general articulation and the kinds of grammatical rules which are to do with the morphological features of the language. These grammatical rules might be to do with tense or plural inflections, or using compound vocabulary 

The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) offers a downloadable IPA. You can find the SIL on a Net Search. 
The URL is: 
Behaviourism, language pedagogy and beyond

As indicated above, Behaviourism has been highly influential in language teaching. It has been used as a rationale for extreme "bottom-up" pedagogies based on the atomisation of phonology, syntax and grammar in classroom exercises. It has also been associated with heavy drilling of syntactic patterns: Skinner identified "habit" as an important aspect of learning. One of the dominant methodologies associated with Behaviourism in language teaching is 'the audio-lingual method', which both Savignon (1983) and Nunan (1995) clearly explain.


To extend your knowledge of the influence of Behaviourism, and beyond to the influence of structural linguistics and then psycholionguistics on language teaching methodologies, the following reading has been selected:

Chapter overview

Nunan's chapter lays a foundation for the next topics in the subject. It includes:

It is possible that you will find the structure of the subject repetitive and will feel this is a flaw. However, it has been purposely structured to introduce topics, to give indications of what they mean for the classroom, and then to elaborate upon those topics. That is, the subject is recursively structured so that there are stages of topic introduction followed by an elaboration as you revisit topics to deepen your knowledge and understandings of their implications and applications. 
Reading scaffolds

Nunan, D. (1995). Language teaching methods: a critical analysis. This chapter describes the kinds of language teaching methodologies which derived from Behaviourist psychology but  Nunan also introduces the influence of Chomsky's work as a transformational grammarian. Transformational grammar, like systemic linguistics is an explanatory, philosophical, grammar. But the ground of Chomsky's philosophy is the relationship between language and the mind; not language and sociocultural practices.