Re: Chomsky vs. Skinner on Language

From: Bollons Nicholas (
Date: Thu Apr 11 1996 - 14:43:54 BST


The two men share greatly differing views and ideas to the
acquisition of grammar in humans. Skinner, a behavioural
psychologist and Chomsky a linguist, their branches of science are
already different. Skinner's explanation of language was that any
acquisition was due to a learning process involving the shaping of
grammar into a correct form by the re-enforcement of other stimulus,
correct grammar is positively re-enforced and will be used in the
future, and incorrect grammar is negatively re-enforced and will be
not be used again. Chomsky differed in his view that human grammar
acquisition is an innate biological ability that all humans possess,
and viewed some form of `generative grammar' which he felt could
explain the rapid acquisition and creative nature of grammar and
language. Skinner proposed a `finite', (single word) processing
system used in sentence interpretation, whereas Chomsky advocated a
model involving whole sentence processing using some form of
`transformational' system. Both men have juxtaposing theories on how
it is that all humans manage to obtain grammar and seeing as
chronologically Skinner was first, here is a good place to start. B.F
Skinner was a Behavioural Psychologist and was unconcerned with any
`underlying mental processes' that may have been occurring during
learning and denounced these `un-observables' as fictitious. Instead
he was concerned with the observable materialistic nature of
behaviour. He felt that there was no `underlying' meaning to words
and that verbal behaviour was due to the conditioning that occurs
between the words and the reinforcement properties of a stimulus.
This does not just apply to physical reinforcement stimulation: `that
if you ask for "a glass of water", you get one', but also social
reinforcement in the form of praise and encouragement i.e. `well
done'. This reinforcement is an important concept, and past
experiences of verbal behaviour are important in determining whether
they will be used again. Skinner used the phrase `Verbal Operant
Conditioning' where a verbal response that occurs in a given
situation and is followed by a reinforcer becomes more likely to
occur again in the same situation. Skinner identified five separate
classes of `Verbal Operant' : Mands, Tacts, Ethoics, Textuals and
IntraVerbals ( cited in Psychology of Language : Paivio & Begg 1981).
He also explained grammatical acquisition using an `Autoclitic', but
seeing as the `Autoclitic' uses all five of the `Verbal Operants', a
brief explanation of their characteristics had better be given first.

The Mand is based on the speaker conveying a command or request for
something which is met with it's production. A child knows from it's
past history that if it says "milk" it will most probably get milk
(milk becomes the reinforcer). The Mand is rooted in the idea of
`com-Mand' and `de-Mand'. Tacts on the other hand, are based on
child's reference to non-verbal objects and the use of `naming'.
Reinforcement occurs through the praise for correct naming i.e.
child says "cat" and mother says "good girl, that is a cat". The
Echoic Operant is the imitation of speech and can be reinforced by a
variety of means including "repeat after me". Textual is the reading
part of the `Verbal Operants'. The last, but by no means the least is
the Intraverbal operant. This is a form of `word association' where a
certain word will control which word is to proceed after it, that
only certain words can go after the word that has just been said (a
sort of "table, chair" game but involving all types of words).
According to Skinner this process is going on all the time whenever
we use a word, only a certain set of words can go after it.

 So we arrive at the `Autoclitic'. This is a form of commentary made
upon one of the `Verbal Operants' described above. Correct grammar
uses the correct order of `verbal operant' and Autoclitic comment.
But Autoclitic comments also take on the form of having verbal
operant characteristics. An example (taken from Psychology of
Language : Paivio & Begg 1981) is probably needed : `the primary
[verbal] operant is the tact `John is in Montreal'. If the speaker
says " I hear that John is in Montreal" we have an example of
autoclitic words in which `I hear that' is a comment on a primary
[verbal] operant that is presumably an echoic (that is, the speaker
heard that someone say that John is in Montreal'). Still confused ?
`John is in Montreal' is the primary `part' of the sentence
involving the words being produced individually using the verbal
operants. Then the sentence is commented upon by the `autoclitic'
which itself has the characteristic of being echoic. If the
sentence was "I read in the paper that John is in Montreal" then the
autoclitic comment would have a `textual' (reading) characteristic.
Correct Verbal Operant and Autoclitic comment (correct grammar) will
be positively reinforced by praise e.t.c and said again, whereas
incorrect grammar will be negatively reinforced ; `no that's wrong'
and not be said again (such as a child who says a gibberish sentence
like `Montreal read in paper that is John I the') . The complexities
of studying such a model, in dissecting each sentence into it's
appropriate verbal operant and autoclitic parts, abound.
  So what evidence have Skinner and Behaviourists produced to validate
their claims? Guess et al 1968 (cited in Psychology of Language :
Paivio & Begg 1981) described how they taught a mentally retarded
girl to make correct grammatical utterances using positive
reinforcement of praise and food. Studies on adults giving
reinforcement for certain nouns and plurals, found an increase in an
occurrence of correct responses, if `praise' was issued (see Holtz &
Azrin Conditioning Verbal Behaviour 1966). In general, children are
considered to acquire correct grammar through reinforcement of their
verbal teachers (particularly their mothers). Yet there is little
evidence to support such a claim. Not only has it been found that
there is no relationship between child correct grammar and parental
positive reinforcement it seems that parents are only interested in
the correctness of a child's meaning (see Slobin 1975). Also some
adult subjects are un- aware of the relationship between correct and
incorrect responses and the reinforcement that they receive because
of their grammar ( see Konecni & Slamecka 1972). Reinforcement does
not seem to occur in the right context but it also seems not to be
noticed. Many (including the linguist Noam Chomsky) have advocated
that a behavioural stimulus - response system involving
reinforcement and a `finite grammar' model, cannot explain the
rapid, creative and complex nature of language. Chomsky `stepped
into the limelight' in the debate on language and grammar
acquisition in his Review Of Verbal Behaviour by B.F Skinner
(Chomsky 1959). It is to him that attention will now be turned.

Chomsky argued that there was no way that a child can obtain a
language from only the `primary linguistic data'(Psycholinguistics
2nd Edition : Slobin 1969) that the child receives from it's
teachers and environment. He prescribed that an infant enters this
world with a predisposition to learn a language fluently, and this
predisposition is encased in our biological make-up, innate to all
humans. (A sort of `Language Acquisition Device' or `L.A.D' as it has
now become known). One of the manifestations of this was in the form
of a `generative grammar', that had the ability to `generate' and
create all the words in a linguistic grammar that he viewed
Skinner's `finite grammar' (though capable of producing) was far too
limited in it's application.

 Chomsky defined this `generative grammar' as : `finite set of rules
operating on a finite vocabulary to generate an infinite number of
acceptable grammatical sentences and no un-acceptable ones' (quoted
from Psychology of Language : Paivio & Begg 1981). So, from a small
number words, using `some rules', we can create a vast (infinite)
number of words, you can in fact boil down all the words in the
English Language to around 500 or so. What did the form of this
generative grammar take the shape of , and what are these `some
rules' that are mentioned above? Chomsky explained the acquisition
of grammar using a process of transformation or `Transformational
Grammar' which is perhaps `the physical form', and the rules that
are `generative grammar'. As may be apparent `transformational
grammar' involves the changing of sentences into other states. They
are metamorphosed into their `deep' and `surface' structures by a
set of rules, or phrase structures. These two `deep' and `surface'
structures are then interpreted according to their phonological and
semantic meaning. The theory is considerably more complex than can
be explained here, and has been revised many times by Chomsky since
it's first publication in 1957 (see Chomsky 1965). The result of
this, is that once a child can master these rules and
transformations, it has the ability to create and expand on his/her
grammar by using these rules to create new sentences that it has not
heard before (which `finite grammar cannot as the child needs to use
or hear the word and find out it's reinforcement properties). A
great deal of creativity occurs in child grammatical utterances.
Chomsky viewed this creativity as a very important aspect.

So what evidence is there to support Chomsky's view of
`transformational generative grammar' and that this is an innate
biological species specific trait ? All languages of the world share
similar characteristics of using nouns, verbs, pronouns, though not
necessarily in a similar order. Grammar and complex language usage
seem also to be a `uniquely human capability' as no other species on
the planet seem to posses such proficiency as humans, though there
have been some successes in teaching `sign language' to Chimpanzees,
it is viewed that any ability that they grasp, cannot be seen as
Homologous, similar in structure, to the complex human abilities of
language (see Modularity, Domain Specificity and the Development of
Language : E. Bates). One theoretical concept, so abstract, so
explicit, and usually overlooked, is proposed by S. Pinker & P. Bloom
in their article Natural Language And Natural Selection (Behavioral
and Brain Sciences 1990). The fact that all human languages use
symbol manipulation to make references to something else that they
(the symbols) are not physically related to, i.e. some form of
`arbitrariness', is an important aspect . The sign is only arbitrary
to the thing it comes to represent. For example, the sign for `Genus
Canus' can be dog, chien, skili or even ##stlg, it does not matter as
long as the word, or sign used, comes to represent the object/concept
and is in no way physically related to it. ( Onomatopoeia will not be
discussed). But say that every time you wanted to talk about `Genus
Canus' you had to produce one, or draw an exact copy, this is not
arbitrary or particularly practical. Pinker & Bloom defined this as
some form of `universal grammar' that is an innate ability in all of
us that uses this `arbitrary symbol manipulation' adapted to it's
present complex form by the process of Natural Selection. This human
symbol manipulation similarity is an important aspect (Watch out do
not confuse your grammars : `universal grammar' (arbitrary symbols )
is different from generative grammar ( rules used to manipulate these
arbitrary symbols).

 Other evidence to support Chomskian claims, can be found in the
study of language deficient patients (aphasia). It has long been
known that damage to the left hemisphere near the motor cortex
(Broca's Area) causes a loss of speech, especially to grammatical
elements. One patient could not access the word `would' (grammatical
word), but could access the word `wood' (content word) (see Marin Et
Al 1976 cited in Psycholinguistics D. I Slobin). Is this
localisation of a grammatical area in the left hemisphere ? Further
evidence (using P.E.T) has indicated that a conclusion of this
nature is much too naive.

There is a volume of evidence to support Chomsky's claims of an
innate generative grammar, though it is difficult (and unscientific)
to introspect whether a transformational process occurs during
grammar acquisition, this would seem considerably more likely than a
`finite' system. These days `generative grammars' have become a
widely accepted theory in linguistics and cognitive science, for
they manage to answer more of the questions on the rapid and
creative nature of grammar acquisition than a Skinnerian, or even a
Neo Behaviourist, model can see fit. (Of course behaviourist's do
not feel this way and defend their claims adamantly - see What Are
The Scope Of Radical Behaviourist Theory : Questions To B.F Skinner
By S. Harnad - question F). Recently, contemporary debate has been
focused upon the nature of this Language Acquisition Device, which
Chomsky proclaims. Just how much innate language ability does a
child have when he/she enters this world ? (see Modularity, Domain
Specificity And The Development Of Language 1994 - E. Bates). What
are the semantic (meaning) components of transformational, and most
grammar systems used in language? (This is of particular importance
to Psychologists). The detailed and vast nature of language, the
difficulty in collecting empirical data during child language
acquisition and the fact that language touches on so many areas of
Psychology, make validation of Chomsky and Skinner's theories, and
any language theories, particularly difficult. Though it would seem
more favourable, from the evidence, to accept `some parts' of
Chomsky's theory.


E. Bates (1994), Modularity, Domain Specificity and The Development
of Language - Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Harnad ( ), What Are The Scope and Limits Of Radical Behaviorist
Theory - py104 Explaining the Mind handout

Paivio & Begg (1981), Psychology of Language - Prentice Hall Inc

 S. Pinker (1994), Language Acquisition - Behavioral and Brain

S. Pinker & P.Bloom (1990), Natural Language and Natural Selection
- Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13

D. Slobin (1979), Psycholinguistics Second Edition - Scott, Foreman
and Co (1979,1974, 1971)

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