Chomsky, in a classical paper, discusses Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior and the associated attempts of behaviorists to explain Language Acquisition as just another complex behavior learned entirely through behaviorist mechanisms of classical and operant conditioning.

Chomsky himself clarifies the difference between cognitive and behaviorist explanations as follows:

It is important to see clearly just what it is in Skinner’s program and claims that makes them appear so bold and remarkable, It is not primarily the fact that he has set functional analysis as his problem, or that he limits himself to study of observables, i.e., input-output relations. What is so surprising is the particular limitations he has imposed on the way in which the observables of behavior are to be studied, and, above all, the particularly simple nature of the function which, he claims, describes the causation of behavior. One would naturally expect that prediction of the behavior of a complex organism (or machine) would require, in addition to information about external stimulation, knowledge of the internal structure of the organism, the ways in which it processes input information and organizes its own behavior. These characteristics of the organism are in general a complicated product of inborn structure, the genetically determined course of maturation, and past experience. …… The differences that arise between those who affirm and those who deny the importance of the specific “contribution of the organism” to learning and performance concern the particular character and complexity of this function, and the kinds of observations and research necessary for arriving at a precise specification of it. If the contribution of the organism is complex, the only hope of predicting behavior even in a gross way will be through a very indirect program of research that begins by studying the detailed character of the behavior itself and the particular capacities of the organism involved.

It would be prudent for me to clarify at the outset, that I am a Cognitivist and definitely see the merits of Chomsky’s arguments and the inadequacy of the potentially misguided attempts of Skinner and other behaviorists to apply the behaviorist concepts and results derived from animal studies to the study of semantics or how words get associated with a particular meaning and are used in particular contexts – either due to their prior association with a stimulus (stimulus control…something like classical conditioning in which the word ‘red’ gets associated with the property redness of an object and the internal visual response or qualia of redness that is produced automatically in response to the stimulus redness causes a conditioned association between “red’ and the qualia redness) or because the word or sentence was reinforced variably through various mechanisms like self-reinforcement, reinforcement-by-way-of-praise etc.

I definitely do not concur with Skinner’s arguments and definitions, and Chomsky show to some extent an understanding of the behaviorist concepts (especially in section II), but he also at times shows his profound lack of appreciation of finer subtleties of behaviorist concepts. For example:

In the book under review, response strength is defined as “probability of emission” (22). This definition provides a comforting impression of objectivity, which, however, is quickly dispelled when we look into the matter more closely. The term probability has some rather obscure meaning for Skinner in this book.9 We are told, on the one hand, that “our evidence for the contribution of each variable [to response strength] is based on observation of frequencies alone” (28). At the same time, it appears that frequency is a very misleading measure of strength, since, for example, the frequency of a response may be “primarily attributable to the frequency of occurrence of controlling variables” (27). It is not clear how the frequency of a response can be attributable to anything BUT the frequency of occurrence of its controlling variables if we accept Skinner’s view that the behavior occurring in a given situation is “fully determined” by the relevant controlling variables.

Here Chomsky has mixed and made a mess of the two separate concepts and processes in behaviorism- classical and operant conditioning. In the above paragraph, the definition of response in terms of ‘probability of occurrence’ is in terms of operant conditioning – wherein responses are autonomously generated by an organism irrespective of any stimulus (leave aside the case of discriminating stimulus as of now) that is present – for e.g. a bar-press- and based on the reinforcing stimulus that is presented to the organism , post response, the response strength or probability that the response would occur, autonomously, in future , increases. This is mixed up with the earlier concept of stimulus control (or classical conditioning) wherein controlling variables (or conditioned stimulus) relevant to a situation lead to an utterance or verbal behavior. This determining of verbal behavior due to presence of a a conditioned stimulus (reflexive language) would be a different mechanism form that used in deliberative language , wherein, an utterance is produced voluntarily and in defiance of its surrounding stimuli, but the probability of that occurrence is in proportion to its history of reinforcement. By mixing the two concepts, Chomsky just manages to show his ignorance and lack of appreciation of the behaviorist concepts/ mechanisms.

But my gripe with Chomsky is more for the change in focus that he has managed to pull off, with the study of semantics taking a backseat to the study of grammar or syntax. In my limited comprehension, I am unable to appreciate, how concepts of Universal Grammar, however much relevant and innate, could be a substitute for a proper analysis of language acquisition in terms of an ability to not only mastered the grammar, but also the semantics. Grammar or Grammar acquisition, per se, does not inform much about the actual and most relevant aspects of language acquisition- viz. semantics and pragmatics.

Addressing semantics, would be a task for a later day (and perhaps for a more capable person than me), but today I would like to tentatively propose a role for behaviorist concepts of reinforcement or operant conditioning as relevant to the general ability to understand and produce language and also to the general difference in talkativeness (and listening-ness, if there exists such a concept) between different people

Language acquisition should be broken into two components – a language understanding (or hearing) component and another language production (or speaking) component. It is a fact that the first component related to language understanding develops prior to language production. Also, it should be kept in mind that language is essentially a two person activity, with the utterance of one acting as (reinforcing) stimulus for the other and the utterance of another acting as a response.

The Hearing (or language understanding) activity:

This language component is used for understanding the meaning of utterances (say spoken language as opposed to written or depicted using sign language) and is relatively independent of language production.

Response is parsing the spoken sentence into words and by analyzing the syntax and meaning of the words constructing a mental image of the intention, beliefs, knowledge and possible behavior of the person who spoke the sentence and integrate that knowledge with the representation and expectation of the world in general.

Reinforcing stimulus is observing the behavior of the person who spoke the sentence to be in accordance with that earlier constructed expectation and prediction (the hearing response). It is assumed that an external act (whether negative or positive) that is in accord with an internal expectation would be rewarding in the sense that it would satisfy and reduce the internal drive to know in general – and to know the future in particular. Alternately, it can be posited that the state of not knowing clearly about the future is a state of unbearable tension and the uncertainty associated with the world is a negative stimulus (property) associated with the world. By hearing and understanding a sentence uttered by someone else, some of this aversive stimulus (uncertainty) is removed and thus by negative reinforcement (removal of an aversive stimulus) any act of hearing (or understanding…or refining the predictions regarding the world) is inherently rewarding irrespective of whether the actual outcome is as per the constructed expectations. Positive reinforcement of having the expectation met would result in strengthening of the hearing response. This is a general strengthening of the hearing response (or the response of creating expectations from heard utterances) and is independent of the actual content of that expectation. Thus, if an effort to construe meaning from an utterance was followed by a positive reinforcement of having that meaning verified, then the propensity of construing meaning from utterances would increase in strength. It is posited that this behaviorist mechanism is one of the strong motivating factor that encourages a child to understand the language of its parents/ society.

Although as adults, parsing sentences into words and extracting meaning from it seems automatic to us, for a child extracting meaning from a string of syllables is a very effort full activity, and the fact that doing so leads to positive reinforcement would encourage the child to pay attention to the hearing and understanding activity and increase their habit strength. The alternate mechanism to such a behavioristically mediated hearing acquisition could be claiming that development of language understanding is under genetic control and is similar to imprinting or genetic unfolding. This claim is weakened by an ability of mature adults to learn a foreign language. Thus, if this mechanism uses imprinting alone, it should be possible only under a critical period of childhood and not amenable to acquisition in adulthood. the fact that children are able to learn second languages faster and better than adults and some evidence form study of feral children as to a critical period necessary for first language acquisition, point to a mixed role of genetic factors like imprinting and behaviorist factors like reinforcement of the ‘predicting the world capability’.

The Speaking (or language production) activity:

This language component is used for production of meaningful utterances (say spoken language as opposed to written or depicted using sign language) and follows the relevant stage of language comprehension.

Response, in this case, would be constructing a valid, informative sentence by piecing together words that denote the shared meaning of objects and situations and uttering a valid meaningful sentence directed towards another listener. The intention for the utterance could be pedagogic (informing or teaching a fact to someone about whom you care), instrumental (using the person spoken to as a tool to achieve desired outcome), empathetic (sharing thoughts, feeling etc with the other person) or of some other kind.

Reinforcing stimulus, in this case would be observing the behavior of spoken-to person and discovering that the relevant information/ facts have been conveyed and understood properly. This reinforcing stimulus, can take the form of either observing the actual behavior, inline with the intended meaning of the utterance, or can be as subtle as deciphering the facial expressions of the listener for signs of understanding. In elongated verbal conversations, a verbal utterance by the listener, may serve as a reinforcing stimulus, and substitute for the outward behavior/ understanding expression (This for example is relevant in telephonic conversations and is one of the reasons children learn to speak on telephones later than they learn talking to adults face-to-face). The stimulus is reinforcing because it satisfies an earlier drive to control (use the other person as a tool for ones ends), the drive to share (the drive for belongings and intimacy) or the drive to inform (pedagogic drive).

Speaking, or constructing valid sentences by stringing syllables together, is again an effortful activity, and though as an adult it may seem effortless, strong motivations have to be present in childhood, for development of proper language production capabilities. The reinforcing stimulus, of having one’s intentions met, by observing the behaviour of the listener, provides the required incentive and mechanism whereby the habit strength of generating meaningful utterances is strengthened.

How to test for this theory:

It is clear from above discussion, that Hearing or language understanding predominantly relies on the drive for meaning or for predicting the world as its guiding mechanism, whereby the speaking or language production relies on other mechanisms involving drive for control , empathy and instruction.

I was recently introduced to Terror Management Theory (TMT) while reading a post by Mixing Memory on how TMT may influence Art Appreciation and I believe a similar study can be used for determining the ability of language understanding to provide meaning.

Specifically, if some subjects are primed with thoughts of death (as opposed to a neutral control topic) , then may exhibit a stringer drive for subsequent activities that give rise to a sense of meaning. This manipulation could be in the form of thinking of the September 11 attacks which increase mortality salience or by asking the participants to read the following instructions designed to increase their mortality salience:

Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you.

Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead.

The other half of the participants should be made to respond to similar instructions, but in reference to an upcoming exam rather than death.

Afterwards, both groups should be allowed an activity that involves language understanding (say listening to a meaningful audio radio program or conversation) and one that does not involve language understanding (say painting or sketching a drawing). The respondents should then be asked which activities (language comprehension related or visual painting related) they found more satisfying or meaningful. If those who had high mortality salience also showed a preponderant satisfaction by indulging in language comprehension related activities as opposed to control group and control task, then this would be a strong indicator of the importance of meaning formation in the motivation for language comprehension. A particular confound here is the second task ( as per the Mixing Memory task, Art may also serve as a Meaning generator and hence not be a suitable control task and should be replaced by a meaningless task like repetitive manual action task) and it should be ensured that this task does not involve Meaning generation. One control that seems appropriate is language production, as the mechanism underlying that is posited to be different from Meaning acquisition. Thus, the control activity could be related to language production (say allowing the participants to make an extempore speech on a topic for 20 minutes).

Finally, I would like to highlight a real life experiment. Those who participate in a ten day Vipassana Meditation camp are not allowed to speak for those ten days. As such, the amount they hear is also limited to some morning/ evening hymns (that may involve more music than language) and apart from that no other hearing or language understanding takes place. After the ten day speaking fast, when the participants talk to each other, one finds great meaning in the conversations. This may be a case of reduction of the meaning drive, after its prolonged starvation.

Also, the traits like loquaciousness may be explained partially in terms of the different underlying needs for control, empathy, instruction etc that give rise to the talking behavior, as well as the particular history of reinforcement that the subject has undergone, thus making that trait subject to both genetic and environmental influences.

To end on a lighter note, please note the Mixing Memory’s evaluation of such studies linking TMT and Art.

I’ve never really hung out in a social psychology laboratory, but here is how I picture a typical day in one. There are some social psychologists sitting around, drinking some sort of exotic tea, and free associating. One psychologist will say the name of a random social psychological theory, and another will then throw out the first thing that comes into his or her head. They’ll write each of these down, and the associations will then become the basis for their next several research projects. OK, so that’s probably not really what’s going on, and I suppose there’s a more scientific method to the social psychologist’s madness, but occasionally I come across a study that makes me wonder. And the great thing about having a blog is that I get to write about it when I do. Today’s example: terror management theory and modern art

I am, at present, camping in the filed of Social Psychology and thus take the privilege of suggesting a more bizarre study that could possibly prove what we may all intuitively know – that the motivation for hearing something is because we derive meaning from it! (Remember the cocktail party effect, wherein we are able to selectively listen to the conversation of interest- or one that is most meaningful to us). As the say, no research is that abstruse as to not get funded. So all you students out there, anyone care to conduct such a research (and prove me right)!

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