Theories of language that attempt to identify the causes of language include the following three perspectives: (1) biological, (2) cognitive, and (3) environmental.
The biological perspective states that language is inherited within each individual at birth. Our language abilities are acquired through a built-in language device when we were born. The cognitive theory views language as a function of mental structure in our mind within which the internal information system processes the use of language. The environmental theory attempts to seek controlling variables of language in an individual's surroundings. Language is acquired through the interactions between an individual and his/her environment and anything associated with such interactions.
Skinner's theory of language--Verbal Behavior (VB)—is an environmental theory. From this perspective, language acquisition is considered as cumulative experiences of individual-environment interactions. Language acquisition does not just occur naturally along with an individual's maturation; more precisely, it occurs because of thousands of natural contingencies that are in effect. For example, a child does not learn to speak simply because of his/her genetic dispositions, time, age, or maturation. A child learns to speak because his primary caregiver has countless interactions with him that consist of three-term contingencies—the basic and key elements of learning.
Why the Verbal Behavior (VB) approach?
- VB approach is learner-centered. If language abilities are innate or exist within each individual's mind, what do we do when encountering someone who obviously cannot communicate well with language (e.g., a newborn baby, a person with a brain injury that affects his language abilities)? We can only try understanding them by categorizing stages of development or inferring their mental states. Or some people may attribute to the diagnosis as the cause of such inabilities to communicate (e.g., autism). These are not of any concern for VB analysis. With the VB approach, each individual is the center of his/her environment, and each variable affecting the interactions in an individual's surroundings is taken into consideration in the analysis, regardless of an individual's diagnosis, age, mental state, or developmental stage.
- VB approach is individualized. Skinner once said, "The subject knows best." His best friend, Fred Keller, a renowned behaviorist and educator also said, "The student knows best." We can only discover the truth by following our learners. No theory can be applied to all learners, instead, the theory has to be modified based on what the learners do. Besides unique genetic inheritance, each individual has his own interactive patterns with people and things around him. VB approach does not categorize all individual and make them fit into certain developmental stages. When looking at each small component in the environment, VB approach focuses on the unique needs of each individual.
- VB approach is scientific. In the past decades, numerous experimental researches have been conducted to validate Skinner's theoretical analysis of VB and to advance our understanding of language from a functional perspective. Consistent with the ABA tradition, the methodology and applications derived from VB analysis are tested with empirical research methods.
- VB approach is applicable. Although the biological and cognitive views of language have provided interesting explanations for language phenomena, the applications of these explanations may be limited. As discussed above, VB approach looks at all controlling variables around the individual, and therefore, is highly applicable in various areas concerning language acquisition. With research to date, VB approach has been applied in the areas of:
- language acquisition/development in early childhood,
- foreign language learning,
- language/speech pathology for individuals with language difficulties,
- language instruction for individuals with language delays and/or developmental disabilities, and
- functional communication skills training to reducing problem behaviors displayed by individuals with intellectual disabilities (e.g., self-injurious behavior due to the lack of abilities to effective communication).