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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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isa kerem bayırlı

Firstly, I should state that as an undergraduate student of foreign language education, it is not me who can convincingly show that Skinner was wrong or not. I am not very assertive on that. In this post, I just want to evaluate some claims of Mr. Weitzman through some questions that I believe to be answered by Nativism but not by behaviourism.

I didn’t read yet Skinner from its main source but during my high school education, we learnt a lot about him. I will base my ideas on these knowledge and I will read Skinner from Skinner as soon as possible. Maybe, good news for Mr. Weitzman.

He says:

“In the very first sentence in Chapter 1 of Verbal Behavior, Skinner described operant learning this way: “Men act upon the world, and change it, and are changed in turn by the consequences of their action.” “

I watched a video that was made in English, I guess. In the video the child was saying “jibama” instead of “pyjama”. The mother says: “oh no! Say “pyjama”, the child says “Yes, jibama!” So How can this be explained with Skinnerian therminology that children learn from the consequences of their output?

Another example from Turkish. The word for water in Turkish is “su”. And my brother used to say “bum” for “su”. It was so cute that we started to say “bum” instead of “su” when we were talking to my brother. For example we would say “ do you want “bum”? and things like that. But unfortunately, my brother turned out to say “su” after a very short time although we did all we can to avoid it.

He says:

“One of the interesting aspects of OC is that it is a domain-general learning capacity. “

Reading this sentence I clearly assume that you mean that language acquisition has something to do with intelligence. That is, as the brain development increases so does language. So language is one of the skills like maths or arts that develop with the development in brain structure.

If that is true, I have several objections in the form of questions.

1) What about people with Williams syndrome that have an IQ of 50 but uses language very effectively?

2) If language is learnt the way other skills are learnt, why is it that a child of seven can reach a perfect stage in language acquisition (note that the complexity of grammar of language hasn’t been yet identified fully) while he is not yet able to think about abstract things and not able to make basic mathematical calculations? Grammar is believed to be a highly abstract system, then how does a child reach this abstract competence before anything like that? Or do you think that if we make them study a lot, children can solve complex mathematical questions?

He quotes the blogger saying that ““you cannot determine the rules for organizing sentences by studying the physical organization of sentences.”and says that Skinner made no such claim. Ok, no problem. But the question is about how can a child of seven omit the physical orginization of sentences and decide on its phrasal structure. What I mean is this.

The man is there.

To make a question

Is the man there?

The inference of the child is that to make a question you put is at the front. Or is that so?

The man who is at home is there.

Is the man who at door is there? GONG! WRONG!

But children seem to construct such sentences succesfully without even knowing what a phrase is. The question is how is it possible?

He says:

“Chomsky’s use of the POS argument resonates in my ear with the Creationists arguments against biological evolution. If evolution can be shown to be impossible, except possibly in very minor ways, then creationism must be correct.”

I quoted this just to say something about language evolution. One, We don’t know what language is. Two, we don’t know much about the evolution of homo sapiens? Three, we don’t know how evolution operated on language, if it ever did?

So no need to feel that Chomskian account would mean some kind of creationism. Chomsky clearly rejects it. To understand the evolution of language, we must understand what language is. The Minimalist Program by Chomsky is a new insight to that. From my point of view a very fruitful one, too.

And also, nobody should accuse another person of being or sounding creationist or whatever as long as it is clearly stated by the other. This is just cheap!

The study you mention about the richness of linguistic input in parent-child communication is important but doesn’t answer the question of how children formulate brandly new sentences that they never heard before.

I want to end this post with a last question that I believe to be of crucial importance. Take these two sentences.

a- Who do you want to feed the dog?

b- Who do you wanna feed the dog?

What do you think is the reason why sentence “b” sounds a bit strange?

J. Goard

What Does the Tool-Using Behaviors of Other Animals Contribute to the Language Evolution Debate?

Interesting example provided unintentionally.

I've noticed before that with direct object WH- questions in which subject and object differ in grammatical number, as they get sufficiently complex subject-verb agreement tends to break down, often with neither option feeling perfectly "right". (This despite the sentence otherwise seeming completely natural.)

I guess UG folks would put your sentence aside as a performance error, but for me it goes to the heart of grammatical explanation: strength of analogy with entrenched constructions, and cognitive limitations in utterance planning.

J. Goard

isa kerem bayırlı,

Regarding your objection (2), on the profound differences of learning natural language versus, e.g., mathematics, there are several reasons why this difference is not a good argument for UG:

(1) Children learning their first language hear several thousand utterances every day. There are no holidays, no recess, and no sharp work/play division with the ring of a bell. Math students can goof off, talk back to the teacher, get into fights, or simply mope to themselves, any of which derails the process of acquiring math skills. But when first language learners do these things, they are still learning language.

(2) A big reason for this is motivation: a huge fraction of what people want to do involves interacting with other people. Motivation is highly intrinsic, i.e. the skill of language is conceptually integrated with most of the goals it is used for (passing information, bonding, challenging, requesting assistance). This is hardly true for math, with the partial exception of money (where AFAIK many people learn to apply arithmetic much better than in formally identical abstract problems.)

(3) "Cognitive linguists" generally argue that schemas derived from visual perception, spatial cognition, and motor control underlie much of grammatical structure. I haven't read Lakoff & Nunez (2001), applying the "embodiment" perspective to math learning, but I gather that (a) much of what we think of as "math" is not nearly as well-grounded in those systems as language is, and (b) the degree to which it can be so "grounded" is invoked to explain the different ease in acquiring various mathematical skills.
BLOGGER: I find these comments on math very intriguing and they sound like they are on the right track. I think the aperceptual qualities of math lie behind much of its difficulty, but this comment offers lots to think about. Thanks!

J. Goard

isa kerem bayırlı,

Finally, with regard to your last question, my response (from the perspective of construction grammars, e.g. Goldberg 1995/2006, Croft 2001, and see Tomasello 2003) would be something like this:

In your (b) sentence, the phonological elements want and to are not symbolically linked with a semantic substructure within the construction. Wanna is first mastered in "pivot" sentences (Tomasello 2003) like I wanna V and Do you wanna V?, with the semantics of the matrix subject's intent or motivation to perform an action. Eventually the basic construction is extended to more complex sentences, as a result of subsequent input, frequency-sensitive learning meachanisms, and analogical processes.

In your example (b), however, the semantic structure is substantially different from the core construction in which wanna occurs (among other things, it does not express the matrix subject's desire to perform an action), so the analogy does not apply. Conceptual structure and relative strength of analogy does the work, with no need to appeal to empty nodes in a purely syntactic structure.

The key point is this: with respect to the capacities of human cognition applied to language, simple phonological adjacency is not the only alternative to generative tree structures.

(Note, BTW, that something like Who do you wanna have lunch with you today? doesn't sound too bad, since our processing mechanisms are flexible enough to accomodate it coherently under multiple constructions (which would be conflicting tree structures in a generative model).


Re: Comments by isa kerem bayırlı

Children's Mispronunciations of Words

Children often pronounce a word differently from the way adults do. In fact, often they think they are pronouncing a word the same way an adult does, even though they aren’t. An anecdotal example of such an instance is as follows:
Adult: Hi, little girl. What’s your name?
Girl: Litha!
Adult: Litha?
Girl: No, Litha!
Adult: Oh, you mean Lisa?
Girl: Yes, Litha!

It often takes a while before a child’s pronunciation matches that of an adult’s. Once they realize the mismatch, they begin to attend better to the articulatory features they are missing in their own pronunciation. If a child doesn’t realize it is mispronouncing the word, it may take some time before their pronunciation becomes more adult-like. What is required is for situations to be occasioned where the child can discriminate the differences in pronunciation. Most of the time these situations happen naturally.

Your Brother's Pronunciation of Water

Not having any detailed information about the history of your brother’s language behavior, it is difficult to say why your brother initially used “bum” instead of “su” or something close to it. If you and other members of your family used his pronunciation for water, then “bum” should have been reinforced. My best guess is that he switched to “su” because the contingencies of reinforcement to use “su” were stronger than those to use “bum”. Unfortunately, we can’t know for sure, without knowledge of his history of interactions with people with respect to the word for water. But what is for sure is that his behavior is not beyond being explained in terms of operant conditioning.

Williams Syndrome

On the face of it Williams syndrome might be considered evidence for a modular theory of language acquisition. On that basis one could claim that the syndrome affected other cognitive skills, but not the language skill, the assumption being that each cognitive skill has its own innate behavior-generating device to control it. Nice idea, but it seems too simplistic to me, especially once one has a fuller knowledge of the behavioral patterns associated with the syndrome. Some earlier studies of children with Williams Syndrome found their language fluency to be quite, remarkable. However, later studies found many children with WS to have various kinds of language deficits too. Thus, one should be cautious in claiming that WS adds any weight of support to the modular theory of the mind. WS is defined not in terms of behavior but genotype. WS children lack something like 26 genes on chromosome 7, which in turn results in a number of variable physical, physiological and behavioral abnormalities. In regard to the domain-general capacity of operant conditioning, one must remember that this claim is in reference to organisms with their genetic makeup intact. Also, children with WS can to some extent overcome their behavior problems and the method that is usually used to do so is operant conditioning.


"Meaning is particularly challenging whenever investigators omit perception." . Excelent thought, but I was thinking that you can get rid of perception because with time that perception can be the input to the mental model tha interprests the meaning, therefore it already entered the brain the perception, so you can get to know the meaning by an indirect kind of perceptual way.

isa kerem bayirli

I was planning to write a long post to give my reasons for supporting Chomskian account of language faculty. However, since much time passed and I had a lot other things to do, I wont be able to do so. and also I had a great diffculty in finding my references from Pinker, Aitchison and others.

This would be the outline if I wrote it.

Refutation of Skinnerism

1. Poverty of Stimulus (studies on Motherese, etc)
2. the way morphology develops (came- comed- came)
3. Further examples of illnesses that show the distinction of language from general learning mechanisms (from Pinker, The language instict and Aitchison, seeds of speech)

Proofs of Nativism

1. Creolization
2. Brain lateralization and localization
3. Similarities between unrelated languages (english and japanese syntax as looking-glass version of each other)
4. Language as a instictive behaviour (arguments by Lenneberg)
5. Natural order and ease of acquisition

I wrote them because maybe some people would like to elaborate on some of them.

Firstly regarding the answer by J gould on the difference between learning maths and language, I wasn't expecting such an answer. It is a really good argument. Then I re-ask my question by changing it. Who don't children show any ability like language at that age? If learning is domain-general ability, children learning language with its complex syntax must have a developed brain capacity but why dont they exhibit such capacity anywhere other than language? to assume that they are highly motivated for games, too, I would suppose that a child at the age of 3.5 should be able to build a highly complex structures with legos, too.

Secondly, on the question of Williams Syndrome I can give six more examples of people with different illnesses who have developed (and sometimes overdeveloped) language skills but low IQ. ex: peopleith ilness of spina bifida.

The example from my brother was only to see whether it could be explained with Skinnerian behaviorism and you are right in saying that the knowledge I offer is not enough for any conclusive answer.

I want to end my post then with only two questions regarding behaviorism vs nativism arguments.

1) How can you explain the development of past tense with children in this way? They firstly say came (without knowing it is related to come) then comed( a wrong generalization) and lastly came (knowing its relation to come). My question is this: How could Skinner explain why they convert from "came" to "comed" both because they would get positive reinforcement for saying came and because comed is an expression that is impossible to hear from their environment.

2)How do you explain creolization? Children that have developed in a environment in which pidgin language is spoken turn out to create a grammar (as complex as other grammars)? Where can they learn this grammar from?

Lastly, I want to end my post by sharing the information that a working class Afro-American community in Tracton don't refer to their children when talking simply because they believe the children wont understand and the children turn out to have a language ability that is equal to others.

Thanks in advance for your thought-provoking comments.
BLOGGER: Thanks for this good list of the main arguments for nativism. Creolization long seemed to me to be the best proof available for nativism and probably is a fine refutation of Skinnerian behaviorism, but the experimental work of people like Simon Kirby, Morten Christiansen, and Nick Chater, plus the theoretical work of Terrence Deacon seem to have undercut the nativist interpretation of creolization.


Isa's list of arguments aren't arguments at all but putative claims that are subject to challenge. I wonder if Isa has read any of the references I have previously given that refute most if not all of these claims.

David Palmer

There is an important difference between Skinner's position and Chomsky's that is not commonly noted in discussions of this sort. The reason that Skinner's theory has such staunch adherents is that it is a complete theory. The terms of Skinner's analysis have all been validated in laboratory research. Moreover, they have demonstrated, or at least postulated, physiological foundations. They have undoubted adaptive significance, so an evolutionary account is easily supplied. So to the extent that Skinner can explain language, it is a thorough explanation.

In contrast, the suggestion that grammar is innate solves the problem of the linguist in a stroke, but it raises insurmountable problems for the physiologist and evolutionary biologist. How can a bunch of neurons be wired in such a way to mediate the task of extracting a grammar from a set of input? How are these rules then applied to output? There isn't a shred of evidence to suggest that this is possible. In contrast, all of Skinner's terms have physiological correlates.

Then we come to evolutionary plausibility. What is the adaptive significance of supposed grammatical rules? If the stimulus is impoverished in the ontogenetic environment, it must be equally impoverished in the phylogenetic environment. How does evolution get a purchase on arbitrary grammatical distinctions with no communicative importance.

Chomsky has been excused from discussing such things by the complexity of the subject matter. That we don't know how it works doesn't mean that Chomsky must be wrong. However, his hypothesis does not offer an actual explanation until these questions are answered.

Skinner's account has already answered them, so the task is to show that his terms are sufficient. The challenges are formidable, but there is no reason to think they are insurmountable. First, much reinforcement in language acquisition is not mediated by other people but by the child himself. Just as a child can learn to pick out a tune on a xylophone, a child can learn to match the practices of adults. The child who could not produce an "s" sound in "Lisa" could evidently hear the difference between "s" and "th". When her articulatory skills matured, she was able to correct herself without any parental input.

This source of reinforcement dramatically increases the number of "learning trials" a child is exposed to.

As for the poverty of the stimulus argument, it is based on a fallacy that the child learns through hypothesis testing. Hypothesis testing is an advanced form of inquiry that humans do indeed engage in, but there is no evidence that the nonverbal child does any such thing. (In what language would they frame their hypotheses? Fodor answers by postulating a "language of thought." Infinite regress.)
BLOGGER: For the record, the idea that children learn through hypothesis testing has largely been abandoned. Among nativists these days the preferred solution to puzzle of how a universal grammar leads to the mastery of a particular language looks to parameters, which can be set. There are many difficulties with this "solution" but it has long since replaced the approach mentioned by the commenter.


The blogger's note to David Palmer's comment simply highlights the ontogenetic and methodological problems associated with a universal grammar. Whatever solution nativists seem to come up with the answer seems to be: "It's turtles all the way down." Just in case readers aren't familiar with the above quotation, it comes from the following anecdote:

After listening to a lecture on how gravity controls the motion of the stars, planets, and other bodies in the universe, an old woman comes up to the lecturer and declares that what he said was all nonsense and that she knew the right answer. "The earth is a flat plate supported on the back of a turtle.", she emphatically declared. The lecturer politely asked the old lady, "And what supports the turtle?" The old lady smiled and said, "You can't trick me. It's turtles all the way down."


Sorry to bump in like that, but on this debate I believe there's also a connexionnist point of view against the "poverty of the stimulus" argument. For exemple, the framework is laid here:

Edelman and Waterfall, (2007) Behavioral and computational aspects of language and its acquisition, Physics of Life Reviews 4 (2007), pp. 253–277.

And they try to support it experimentally in Onnis, Waterfall & Edelman (2008)Learn locally, act globally: Learning language from variation set cues, Cognition 109 (2008) 423–430.
BLOGGER: Thanks for the refs. The issue is not whether the poverty of the stimulus argument can be solved without using Chomsky's answer, but whether it can be solved using B.F. Skinner's argument.

Darin C

I have been working in the field of language intervention for children with ASD using operant principles for over 10 years. The Chomskyan argument has always looked like creation science to me and most of his adherents seem to have little idea of how science actually progresses or works. However, for those clinging on to the POS argument while going to extraordinary lengths to ignore the amount of research proving that the brain does function utilising context as Skinner predicted I would urge you all to start reading up on Relational Frame Theory and all the research on Stimulus Equivalence. I use it every day on 80 odd children and trust me teaching tenses that become generative is not just easy its utterly predictable and consistent with Skinnerian Functionalism...

Eric Charles

Dr. Weitzman, great post! To answer some of the comment questions, many arise from a confusion about what language is and what qualities are needed to perform that function. Chomsky views language as being fundamentally about following "rules" and making "correct" sentences, but that a weirdly modern and intellectual view. Skinner is working within a naturalist tradition. For Skinner, language is about social interaction. This issue is not whether one forms a grammatically correct sentence, but about the effect one's sentence has on another person. In Skinner's system there is no way to declare a linguistic move "right" or "wrong" except to observe its effects on other people. If a hungry person asks for food and gets it, using the utterance "Soup, it is, food, the please, soup now need.", who the hell is Chomsky to criticize the person for lacking proper grammar. If the sentence was issued by someone deprived of food, and the result is that a social partner brought food for the person to eat, then language served its proper function.

To make an analogy, imagine if we applied the same logic to music. A Chomsky-esque analysis would take the highly formalized rules of western music from the renaissance and declare that music was "about" following those rules. By that criterion improvisational jazz and virtually any non-western form of music would not be "grammatically valid". Ick.

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