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Language Acquisition

The Role of the Environment: Behavioral Model


Children learn language through imitating the people they are most frequently around. As children grow and are exposed to adult language, they begin to imitate phrases and sentences to speak more like adults. B.F. Skinner first introduced this theory in the book "Verbal Behavior." In the book, it is the behavioral theory of language acquisition that puts an emphasis on how the environment affects behavior and language.

There are three things that children begin responding to: reinforcing verbal behavior (Good job!), punishing the behavior (Shut up!), and ignoring the behavior. When teaching a child, it's important to use the first most often, reinforcing verbal behavior. This regulates their responses in a positive way and really can help children learn. the other two are used to reduce the verbal behavior. As children experiment with words and broken sentences, continuous verbal reinforcement from the people around them will help them to begin speaking "adult language." For additional information on reinforcement, check out

Many people support the imitation theory, however, some also believe this theory has many limitations. There are a few different reasons people doubt this theory. First of all, the process of imitation should most likely be speaking the words the children hear most often first. However, the words spoken most often are a and the, but they are the two words rarely said first or in early stages of language development. Another argument against the behavioral theory is a great phenomenon called novel productions. This is where children say sentences and phrases they have never heard before. Finally, many speculate the behavioral theory as invalid. Children say phrases they don't understand and say things before they know the meaning.

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Page Last Updated on 11/3/04