Behaviourism as a Language Learning Theory

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Behaviourism as a Language Learning Theory

Info: 2779 words (11 pages) Essay
Published: 22nd Jul 2021 in English Language

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Human beings learn every now and then. According to Cambridge Advanced Dictionary (2003), learning can be defined as an activity of obtaining knowledge. We human usually learn or gain knowledge either in a conscious way or subconscious way. Learning is not necessary must be conducted in a formal way such as tutorial, class or lecture; however, we also learn when we having a conversation with others or be it listening to the radio. “Learning is a relatively permanent change in a behavioral tendency and is the result of reinforced practice” (1963, cited in Kimble and Garmezy, 1987, p.6). There are actually a few theories been used to describe how knowledge or language is acquired namely Behaviourism, Innatism and Interactionism.

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For the first part of this assignment will explain these theories’ various approaches and principles. Then, this paper will focus on the pedagogical implications of each theory in teaching English as a Second Language. Part two will focus on examining the underlying learning theories which could have influenced the teaching-learning activities from a textbook. By the end of this paper, students will be able to differentiate learning theories and adopt the most suitable ones into his/her teaching career.

Behaviourism is the earliest language learning theory which is propounded by J.B. Watson (1878-1957) in 1913. This theory is supported and believed by some behaviourists who are Skinner, Pavlov and Thorndike; also, profoundly developed the theory of behaviourism on learning.

Behaviourism focuses on observable behaviours which are changed as the symptoms of learning. According to Brown (1987: 17), the behaviouristic approach focuses on the immediately perceptible aspects of linguistic behaviour – the publicly observable responses. Learning only occurs when there are changes in behaviour and observable as an evidence of changing. Feeling and mental process are not accepted in Skinner’s human behaviour’s theory; however, he still accepted the existence of mind. Behaviourists consider learning a language as a set of mechanical habits which are formed through a process of imitation and repetition. Humans learn a language through repeating the same form and text until it becomes a habit. Children imitate the sounds and patterns which they hear around (Lightbown & Spada: 1999). So, it was proposed that learners would repeat words they heard and tried to use it in their conversation until it became a regular basis in life. Behaviourists therefore think that learning a language especially second language (L2) should be learnt through extensive drill and practice.

Besides that, behaviourists also justified that learning a new language is learning a new set of habit. According to Ellis (1990), learning could be effected by manipulating the environment to provide the required experience. This lead to the theory formation of habit is related to the environment where learning process actually takes place. These habits formation and the environment are recognized as Stimulus-Response (S-R) by Pavlov and Skinner. In 1950s, school of psychology successfully prevailed S-R in the form of behaviourism to ensure the connection between both elements. Behaviourists might consider effective language behaviour to be the production of correct responses to stimuli (Brown: 1987). According to the theory, behaviour happens in casual, associative chains; all learning is thus characterized as associative learning, or habit formation, brought about by the repeated association of a stilmulus with a response Hadley (1993, cited in Hilgard 1962, p.45). So, its best known proponent, B.F. Skinner used rats conclude that conditioning has a 3-state procedure: stilmulus, response and reinforcement. From here, Skinner presumed that human learning and animal learning are parallel; thus, L2 learning is also similar as other kind of learning can be explained by the same laws as well as principles.

Every process of learning has to be followed by reinforcement. All learning is the establishment of habits as the results of reinforcement and reward (Demirezen: 1988). In behaviourism, there are two different types of reinforcement. The first one is positive reinforcement, where the response or behaviour is strengthened and positively augmented by praise or reward. For instance, when a student answer a question correct and the teacher award him/her a star, then the student will try to answer another question because he/she is more confident and motivated. In contrast, the second reinforcement is negative reinforcement. If a student been scolded by his/her teacher after got the answer wrong, he/she would tend not to give answer by the next Q & A session because it would make him/her feel embarrassed. In short, positive reinforcement helps learners develop correct habits.

Furthermore, Behaviourist learning theory also claimed that old habits interfere with the acquisition of new ones. Learning of the L2 would be facilitated since all the learners had to do was to transfer L1 habits (Ellis: 1990). That means errors in first language learning (L1) are the result of interference in L2. It has to be avoided and prevent L1 interference happened as well as corrected on the spot if they do occur.

One of the examples of extensively drilling in learning is Audio Lingual Method which is an American method. It is function as a structural approach designed to develop oral communication fluency in L2. Audio Lingual Method is focuses on accuracy (pronunciation and intonation), mistakes should be avoided and corrected immediately if it happened. Ellis (1990: 23) wrote: “for learning to be effective habits had to become automatic.” In short, language learning’s pattern has to be “over-learnt” and the content based on common day’s dialogues as well as expression. If follow by the positive reinforcement which will help students to develop correct habits. By then, learning the structures of the language is more emphasized if compare to the vocabulary.


In 1959, Noam Chomsky published ‘Review of Verbal Behaviour’ to critically criticize Skinner’s theory of Behaviourism. Innatists claimed that linguistic knowledge is an abstract nature no solely on the set of mechanical habits (imitation and repetition). According to Ellis (1990), new grammatical forms were not acquired through imitation and not stamped in through practice. Language is too complex and occurs too rapidly for it to be learned through imitation. In other words, competence could not be achieved simply to performance due to insufficient of input to enable the child to discover the ‘hidden’ rules (Ellis: 1990). For Chomsky, children are not necessary to be taught because they will learn in terms of walking at about same age; meanwhile, the environments contribute the most in learning. Chomsky and other linguists argued that children are credited with a special ability to discover the underlying rules of a language system within themselves. This innate and special ability is called Language Acquisition Device (LAD) or ‘a little black box’ and Universal Grammar (UG) which exist in the brain. The LAD contains a set of abstract principles common to all languages which enables the child to produce infinite variety of sentences and construct grammatical sentences. UG was claimed to help children to extract the rules of their language and to avoid grammatical errors (Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams 2007). Therefore, a child has to listen and learn grammar to trigger the LAD or UG which then enables the child to discover the rules of the language. In short, human beings acquire and adapt language in any environment along with input of language or linguistic knowledge.

Monitor Model

In 1982, Stephen Krashen, who have had a great influence on language learning and acquisition by stimulated the ‘Monitor Model’. The Monitor Model consists of five hypotheses which are The Input Hypothesis, The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis, The Monitor Hypothesis, The Natural Order Hypothesis and The Affective Filter Hypothesis.

The first hypothesis is Input Hypothesis. This hypothesis claimed that language acquisition takes place through comprehension input (CI). Comprehensible input is available when students or learners are able to understand messages and their attention is focused on meaning. Besides that, comprehensible input will only occur if the inputs’ forms and structures pitch one level above the level of student (CI = i + 1). Whatever it pitches one level above learner’s current level competence, both comprehension and acquisition will occur. Learners will not benefit anything in learning if the input has no element of challenge; however, they will not acquire the knowledge if the input is too difficult. Acquisition leads to the result of comprehensible input and not production or quantity. Comprehensible Input does not have to be fine-tuned and reading is crucial to language acquisition*.

The second hypothesis is Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis. This hypothesis explained that adults have two distinct and independent ways to develop knowledge of a second language – learning and acquisition. In Krashen’s view, a learner learns second language whereas a child picks up or acquires his/her mother tongue (first language). Learning is a conscious process with attention to form and error correction. In contrast, acquisition is a subconscious process when a learner is engaged in meaningful communication and focus is on meaning. Both acquired and learned knowledge are separately; therefore, learned knowledge cannot be converted into acquired knowledge. If learner acquires knowledge by naturally, the knowledge will be able to use spontaneously.

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The third hypothesis is Monitor Hypothesis. Krashen developed this hypothesis and urged that acquired knowledge is responsible for fluency and intuitive judgements about correctness. On the other hand, learnt knowledge can be put to conscious use through the Monitor. A learner will use the monitor through learnt knowledge to correct and check what they say is grammatically. This monitor operates only under three circumstances when there is sufficient time to self-correct, the focus is on form and knowledge of the rules being applied (Hadley: 1993). The fourth hypothesis is Natural Order Hypothesis where grammatical structures are acquired in a natural and predictable order. It shows the evidence whenever the focus is on communication.

The last hypothesis is Affective Filter Hypothesis. Affect refers to things as motives, needs, attitures, and emotional states (Lightbown & Spada 1999).This hypothesis is connected to the motivation factor. Cook (1993, cited in Krashen 1985, p.3) claims that in order for a learner to success in acquiring knowledge, CI is a necessary but not sufficient due to a ‘mental block’ that prevents acquirers from utilizing the CI input they receive for language acquisition This mental block is called affective filter. The affective filter is low when the learner’s motivation and self-confidence is high as well as low anxiety; therefore, more input is available for acquisition. On the other hand, the affective filter is high when learner’s motivation and self-confidence are low. In short, the success of acquisition is controlled by the affective filter.


Krashen claimed that every human has a natural innate mechanism to learn a language along with comprehensible input (CI). However, Krashen’s CI came under challenge by few Applied Linguists namely Evelyn Hatch, Teresa Pica and Michael Long. Michael Long agrees with Krashen that CI is important for language acquisition but how input is made comprehensible (Lightbown & Spada: 1999). Language develops as a result when interaction occurs between children and other speakers. Every learner has to converse and communicate with others in order to adapt what they have learnt which shows their competence and understanding. Therefore, a learner will develop his/her language ability when they take part in spontaneous interactions rather than straight drills (Nunen 1991).

Correspondingly, Language acquisition is an outcome of interaction between the learner’s mental abilities and the linguistic environment (Rozzana: n.d.). Native speaker provides language input to language learner; meanwhile, language learner produces the language as the product of output through communication. In fact, interactional modifications usually take place when native speaker modify their speech in order to make their speech comprehensible. It is supported by Long (p.342) that modification is the vital and widely used method of making input comprehensible. Learners will be promoted and engaged into this modification and negotiation of meaning when there is a communication breakdown. There are few examples of interactional modifications which are comprehension checks, clarification requests, confirmation checks, self repetition/paraphrase and use of extralinguistic features.

In addition, learners usually engage in learning when information is to be exchanged with each other. During the process of exchanging information or feedback after the conversation, output will be a route to language learning along with interactional modification. Besides that, two-way communication promotes more interactional modification than one-way communication. According to Rozzana (n.d.), for the learner to communicate, he must learn the language and in order to learn it he must communicate. This point often overlooked on how Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia can master simple ‘Bahasa Malaysia’ although without attending formal tutorial. They acquire the language through social interaction in daily conversation; also, interact with the environment. Henceforth, Long’s ideas are identical with Vygotsky’s theory of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) where learners acquire knowledge through interaction with the physical world (Lightbown & Spada: 1999).

Comprehension Output

Both Michael Long and Stephen Krashen agree that CI as a source of acquisition. On the contrary, some interactionists argue that CI is not sufficient for language acquisition depends on some factors which cannot account for the whole of acquisition (cf. Long, 1989:10). Learners need to be instilled language development especially grammatical development. Besides that, learners must be ‘pushed’ or ‘forced’ to produce comprehensible target language in order for language development to occur. With this in mind, one of the activities which is called ‘read and respond’ in Myline whereby students are assigned an article to read and given their opinion critically. So, students are not only received input from teachers whereas trigger their LAD while producing language, either spoken or written. Fours ways (reading, listening, writing and speaking) in which output might play a role in the process of second language learning have been proposed (Swain, 1985). Listening and reading could be the comprehensible inputs different from speaking and writing which are comprehensible outputs.

Learners are given the opportunities to test his/her hypothesis about the language through comprehensible output. This is especially so when learner notices a ‘gap’ in his/her interlanguage system if there is a communication breakdown. Once the learner realize the gap in interlanguage system, he/she is likely to search their own linguistic knowledge for information which might help to close the gap; also, pay attention to relevant input (Swain, 1993). Hence, learner will focus on form and mismatches between input and output which may also provide some of the information a learner needs about what is not permissible in a language (Long, 1996). Last but not least, CI encourages semantic processing but CO encourages syntactic processing.

Audio Lingual Method is a wise method to be used to learn a language; however, it is not enough to suit the advancement of language learning nowadays. Since this theory deduced that learning is a mechanical process but it does not account for the creativity evident in ones’ ability to produce novel utterances and children’s imitation of structures show evidence of almost no innovation (Brown 1987, Demirezen 1988). Students will find it hardly to converse in the target language when they step into the true sense of the world; also, unable to write or create new sentences.


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