Behaviourist Approach

In the 19th century in the field of psychology, some behaviorists conduct a research on animals and children how they learn language (Pavlov’s classical conditioning; stimulus – response) trial and error.


(The Behaviourists made research by looking at the behaviour of the objects being researched. E.g. behaviour of dog, cat, child, ect.)


The Behaviourist View of Language learning


The process of language learning according to the behaviourists can be explained in terms of conditioning. The child begins to hear during the 1st year of his life a large number of speech sound produced by his parents. Gradually his learns to associate these sounds with the situations, which accompany them. For instance, the child learns to recognize the sound of endearment, which his mother produces when she feeds him.


After sometime, these sounds become pleasurable in themselves even when they are not accompanied by food. At this stage, conditioning to language has begun. The more frequently the child is exposed to this process of conditioning, the stronger its effect. However its strength of the associative bound between the sounds and the situations accompanying them depends upon the satisfaction, which the child obtains from the conditioning process.


Before long, the child begins to imitate some of speech sounds that he has heard; the child does so in an attempt to control the environment and to invite the attention of his mother. The mother may fail to response to the majority of these random signals, but if the child, by chance, produces the vocal stimulus, which the mother recognizes as the appropriate, she responses. We say that his behaviour pattern has been rewarded or reinforced while all the inappropriate behaviour patterns have been neglected.


When a behaviour pattern is rewarded, this deals to the formation of the bound of association, say between the utterances (stimulus) and milk (response). Initially learning takes places through a random association but once it has been formed it is rapidly strengthened through repetition. The child is able to confirm that a certain vocal utterance is the correct stimulus for the desired response; he can then repeat the utterance each time it is needed.


On the other hand, a behaviour pattern that is not rewarded gets extinguished (will not be repeated by the child). The child will not continue to produce the utterance for which the mother does not take any notice of it. This is said to be the natural process of language learning, which a language-teaching program should try to stimulate. For the teacher, the following implications of the behaviour model of learning are relevant:


  1. Language is learnt only through use or practice. The more the learner is exposed to the use the better the chances of learning it.
  2. The production of language depends on the situation, which makes its use necessary. Language cannot be taught in divorce from situation; the teacher has to introduce each new pattern of language in a meaningful situation.
  3. Producing the correct linguistic response also requires effort. If the learner is not called upon to make this effort there is no learning.
  4. Producing the correct response also requires attention. Attention is bound to slacken after a time to prolong. So prolonged practice is less useful than spaced practice.
  5. The spoken language comes earlier than the written, and the receptive (passive) experience of language is necessary before any productive (active) use can begin.
  6. Learning takes place faster if the correct response toward stimulus is confirmed. The learner must know at once if his effort is right or wrong (rewarded).
  7. Learning is still faster if the learner is placed to the situation where he can produce only the correct response. Each incorrect response builds up a faculty behaviour pattern, which interfere with the process of conditioning.
  8. Every new item learnt must be reinforced by further practice before further learning begins.


Most of the methods used during the past 70 years for teaching language made use of these assumptions from Behaviorism. They emphasized, repeated but spaced-practice of language material in meaningful situation, in imitation of a given model, first orally and then writing.


Note: Behaviorism does not distinguish between the language of human being and that of animal.