Language Acquisition – Skinner and Chomsky

B.F Skinner’s theory was based on his beliefs of how behavior and actions could be controlled by their consequences. He believed that positive reinforcement was successful within children’s education as it encouraged them to try their best and complete work to their best potential. Reinforcement can be positive or negative, whether it be praise with a sticker or threatened with punishment such as detention, it can help children choose their actions and behavior correctly. Within his early stages of experimenting with this theory, Skinner studied animals such as rats and pigeons. During his experiments, he created the ‘Skinner Box’ which was a simple cage like box which the animal was placed within. This box allowed Skinner to prove the success of positive reinforcement as the animal learned that they would receive food with the press of a button within the box. Later, this method was proven to work on humans, especially children. It has become obvious that the use of positive reinforcement, such as praise, with children, encourages them to learn and develop. Skinner believed this was effective with prompting a baby during the process of learning to talk. He believed that when a parent praises the child when a random babble sounds close to an English word, it encourages them to repeat the sounds. On the other hand, when irrelevant sounds of a baby are ignored, it’s extinguished and forgotten about.

Noam Chomsky, however, disagrees with Skinner’s theory relating to children’s learning and development as he believes that humans are born with a basic knowledge of language and don’t have to learn it from fresh. Chomsky believes that language is biologically inherited whereas Skinner’s theory is based on how a child learns how to talk through the use of positive reinforcement from adults who already speak a language fluently. This also goes against Skinner’s belief of how the use of praise and reward with children in fact does not help them learn. Chomsky’s theory disagrees with Skinner’s method of positive reinforcement as Chomsky believes that the use of praise and rewards doesn’t assist a child’s development nor encourage them to learn. He, however, considers that each child is born with a language template which is developed throughout their education. This goes against Skinner’s theory as he believes that a baby’s random babbles don’t have any links to a language until they are encouraged through positive reinforcement by adults to form noises which sound like proper words.

In my opinion I believe that both theories have different aspects which are true. I believe that Skinner could have been correct in saying that if children are praised for making babbling noises that sound like words, it definitely encourages the child to making the sound again. Through the child repeating the sound it will develop until it becomes a recognisable word. On the other hand, I also believe that what Chomsky’s theory says about a human being born with the capacity in the brain for language to also be a good thought, however, I’m not sure whether I think this is true. I do believe that if a child isn’t exposed to language before a certain age that they will no longer be able to learn how to talk. This is due to my research on Genie, the feral child, which I spoke about in a previous post which you can read here.


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