A Brief Review of Behaviourism/language

A Brief Review of Behaviourism 

Kishi Garmroodi, M. Islamic Azad University, Quchan Branch , Department of Language


This paper aims to argue about the reason why Behaviourism, also known as behaviourist psychology,has been condemned by the experts in the field of language teaching; as it is believed to be the foundation of the Audiolingual Method. Behaviourism introduces three main elements in the process of learning: A stimulus, a response, and reinforcement. All together, these three key factors result in a quick learning through repetition and difficult practices. Many professionals and scholars consider this approach to language learning as inhumane and cruel since it totally disregards the mental abilities of a learner. Here it has been discussed that Behaviourism may seem a little mechanical at first sight; however, a thorough practice will lead to a deep and perfect learning.
Key words: behaviourism, audiolingual, stimulus, response, reinforcement

I. Introduction

Behaviourism is a theory of psychology which states that human and animal behaviour can andshould be studied only in terms of physical processes, without reference to mind. It led to theories of learning which explained how an external event (a stimulus) caused a change in the behaviour of an individual (a response), based on a history of reinforcement (Richards and Schmidt, 2010).
    Behaviourism was used by psychologists like Skinner, Osgood, and Staats to explain first language learning, but these explanations were rejected by adherents of generative grammar (like Chomsky) and many others.
   Behaviourism is also referred to with other terms such as: behaviourist psychology, or behaviourist theory (Richards and Schmidt, 2010).
    The foundation of behaviourism dates back to the 1920s when Pavlov, a Russian psychologist, introduced the idea of classical conditioning based on a series of experiments he conducted on a dog’s digestion system. Years later, studying the behaviors of rats, Skinner built an experimental chamber which came to be called the Skinner box (Rashtchi and Keyvanfar, 2002).
     B.F. Skinner (1904–۹۰), American psychologist, developed a theory in learning which is known as the stimulus-response theory (S-R theory). It describes the process of learning as the formation of associations between responses. A stimulus is that which produces a change or reaction in an individual or organism.
    Laboratory studies had shown that learning could be successfully manipulated if

three elements

 were identified: a stimulus, which serves to elicit behavior; a response, triggered by a stimulus; and reinforcement, which serves to mark the response as being appropriate (or inappropriate) and
encourages the repetition (or suppression) of the response in the future.
    A response is the behaviour which is produced as a reaction to a stimulus. Reinforcement is a
stimulus which follows the occurrence of a response and affects the probability of that response occurring or not occurring again.
    Reinforcement which increases the likelihood of a response is known as positive reinforcement.
Reinforcement which decreases the likelihood of a response is known as negative reinforcement. If no reinforcement is associated with a response the response may eventually disappear. This is known as extinction. If a response is produced to similar stimuli with which it was not originally associated, this is known as “stimulus generalization”. Learning to distinguish between different kinds of stimuli is known as discrimination (Richards and Schmidt, 2010).

 “Translated into a teaching method this led to the Audiolingual Method, in which       language learning was seen as a process of habit formation and in which                 target-language patterns were presented for memorization and learning                 through dialogs and drills.” (Richardsand Renandya, 2002, p. 20)

According to behaviourism, human learning like animal learning is a change in behavior based on some form of conditioning. Language learning as a verbal behavior is controlled by its consequences.

A rewarding consequence strengthens a behavior and a punishing one weakens or even eliminates it. In language classrooms, teachers are required to reinforce correct utterances of the learners to stamp them in and help the learners over-learn the linguistic items through repetition (Rashtchi and Keyvanfar, 2002).

II. Discussion

     “Perhaps the oldest method of teaching pronunciation involves exercises in elocution: imitation drills and reading aloud. The popular image of students  chanting ‘the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’ is still the reality of many  language classrooms. With the development of recording technology and the rise of Audiolingualism, such methods became the stock-in-trade of language
      teaching, and, although now widely discredited in the areas of grammar and  vocabulary teaching, the ‘listen and repeat’ approach has persisted in the  teaching of pronunciation.” (Richards and Renandya, 2002, p. 180s)

Many experts refer to Audiolingualism, which has been derived from Behaviourism, as a cruel and inhumane method of language teaching as it totally disregards the ability of human mind and considers language learning as only a mechanical and physical process. To oppose to this violent nature, cognitive psychology was born.
      Cognitive psychology is a branch of psychology that deals with such

processes as attention, perception, comprehension, memory, and learning. In contrast with behaviourism, cognitive psychology is concerned with mental processes and the representation of knowledge in the mind. Many cognitive psychologists work within an information processing paradigm, which assumes that
the mind is a symbol-processing system and that these symbols are transformed into other symbols when acted on by different processes, while others have adopted models proposed by connectionism. (Richards and Schmidt, 2010)

With a brand new psychology and method in language teaching, Audiolingualism was condemned for its inability to improve humane skills of the learners. Today, few teachers use this method in their classes and even if they did, they would be considered as old-fashioned and would be blamed, since they are not paying any attention to learners’ feelings as well as their mental abilities. Occasionally,
some techniques and drills from this method are used in classrooms; such as repetition drills or substitution drills.

As a teacher, musician, and former basketball trainer, I have seen Behaviourism as a practical and useful theory in any kind of learning process. It would be too unfair if we consider Audiolingual Method or Behaviorism as totally stock and old-fashioned. This is only a matter of practice, and practice does make perfect. The more one practices a skill, the better and deeper the learning happens.
In sports, music, and also language learning, a lot of different and challenging exercises are required in order to strengthen the preferred ability or skill. Behaviourism provides the fundamentals of a thorough practice, and eventually, a profound learning.

III. Conclusion

Bahaviourism is a theory in psychology which refers to the process of learning as a change in behavior and introduces three key elements in this process: A stimulus, a response, and reinforcement. Based on this theory, the Audiolingual method was developed as a quick way to learn to speak a foreign language like natives.
      Many people, including experts in language learning and psychology, may consider this theory and method of learning mechanical and inhumane, as it totally disregards the mental abilities of the
learners. Personally, I believe that it will be unfair to look down at Behaviourism. This theory introduces a good way to learn some skills perfectly through different practices like repetition. It may be difficult, but the outcome is extraordinarily perfect when a thorough and deep earning is achieved.


Rashtchi, M. & Keyvanfar, A. (2002). ELT Quick n’ Easy. Tehran: Rahnama.
Richards, J. C. & Renandya, W. A. (2002). Methodology in Language Teaching.Cambridge

:Cambridge University Press.
Richards, J. C. & Schmidt, R. (2010). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. London: Pearson Education

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