Language Acquisition: Skinner vs. Chomsky

In this video I introduce language acquisition as a type of learning that isn’t explained well by the behaviorist principles we saw in the unit on learning theory. In the next few videos we’ll be looking at linguistics and language acquisition in more detail and then considering how language relates to thought. We begin with Noam Chomsky’s review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, which revealed the limits of the behaviorist approach. Next I introduce Chomsky’s idea of a Language Acquisition Device that enables humans to learn language almost automatically when exposed to it.

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Chomsky’s review of Verbal Behavior:

Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Michael Corayer and this is Psych Exam Review. At the end of the unit on learning theory we started to see situations where the behaviorist explanation for learning didn’t quite work. There’s types of learning that it doesn’t really apply to.

So we saw this with latent learning and the idea of cognitive maps. We saw it with observational learning, the idea of vicarious reinforcement, where we can learn without being directly reinforced or punished and we saw it with the idea we can learn about categories of things, abstract learning, and that we can have insight where we’re able to solve problems without using trial and error behavior, without needing to get rewarded or punished for certain behaviors. We were able to sort of think through and solve problems using internal mental representations.

One thing that we sort of skipped over in that section was language and how we acquire language. Language is really all about mental representations right? We take these arbitrary sounds, we assign the meaning and they allow us to represent things in an internal mental way that’s not directly tied to our observable behavior. This means language is going to be really hard to explain using a behaviorist explanation of how we learn.

Now BF Skinner tried to do this in 1957, he published a book called Verbal Behavior and in this book he laid out a behaviorist explanation for how language acquisition would occur. The essential idea would be that reinforcement and punishment would apply to language use, so that if you learn to say words correctly you get reinforced and if you don’t then you get punished or ignored and as a result it’s reinforcement that allows language to develop. If you’re a young child and you learn how to say “cookie” now you can ask for cookies and get them and that’s rewarding and so that’s going to encourage you to learn how to say cookie correctly but, obviously that’s a simplification, but the idea here don’t really work for a lot of situations and there’s a lot about language acquisition that doesn’t seem to follow the simple behaviorist ideas of reinforcement and punishment.

So in 1959 a linguist named Noam Chomsky wrote a review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior and Chomsky’s review was fairly devastating and he picked apart a lot of ways that language acquisition doesn’t seem to follow the principles of operant conditioning. I’ll post a link in the video description box where you can read Chomsky’s review.

Now Chomsky suggested that language is a different type of learning, it doesn’t follow those rules and part of the reason for this was that humans have a language acquisition device. This isn’t an actual device or structure in the brain but rather it’s just a term for referring to the idea that human brains must have some sort of system or process that allows us to acquire language and other animals simply don’t have this.

So you can use sort of operant conditioning to teach your dog to maybe recognize a few words but your dog is never going to develop the full linguistic fluency that a child will develop and this is because, according to Chomsky, humans have this language acquisition device and dogs don’t. Their brains just aren’t designed to acquire language the way that we are even though they can, of course, learn through operant conditioning.

So in the next few videos, we’re going to look in a little more detail at linguistics; the study of language. We’ll see how language acquisition appears to be different from other types of learning and how this shows that human brains appear to be designed to learn language. Language seems to naturally emerge in anyone who is exposed to it and this makes it quite different from other types of learning. You don’t naturally acquire calculus simply by being exposed to it but language, you take a child who’s, you know, two years old and they’re already starting to use language and this suggests that language is a unique type of learning. This idea of a language acquisition device suggests that this is specific to humans and human brains.

Ok, so that’s what we’ll be looking at in the next few videos. I hope you found this helpful, if so, please like the video and subscribe to the channel for more. Thanks for watching!