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A behavioral analysis of controversial topics in first language acquisition: Reinforcements, corrections, modeling, input frequencies, and the three-term contingency pattern


Due to the antibehaviorist trends that were predominant during the recent decades in the field of language development, it has been generally doubted, overlooked, or simply denied that parental reward/punishment, corrections, imitation, and other learning-theoretical phenomena do have any impact during the course of language transmission/acquisition. R. Brown who collected the most encompassing corpora of mother-child interactions supported this trend by providing authoritative assertions as to the absence of these phenomena. To reevaluate these assertions which had been generally accepted without independent evaluations, the transcripts of Brown were reanalyzed employing equivalent samples of the interactions of Adam and Eve with their mothers. Equivalence was defined on the basis of Mean Length of Utterance which ranged between 1.4 and 4.2 morphemes. Adam was between 27 and 35 months old and Eve between 18 and 27 months during the time of data collection. Thirty-nine teaching techniques of the mothers and 37 learning strategies of the children were differentiated. The teaching techniques included conditioned positive reinforcement, obvious linguistic corrections, conditioned punishment, several forms of less obvious corrections, and various forms of modeling. Frequencies of techniques as well as frequencies of specific linguistic constructions in the input were counted. Patterns of interactions were established by means of transitional probabilities between the techniques and strategies. With the exception of obvious conditioned punishment, high frequencies of specific teaching techniques and of types of linguistic input were encountered. The interactions between the mothers and the children exhibited not only a considerable degree of structure, that is, the patterns occurred with a frequency that by far surpassed chance coocurrences, but they also appeared largely to be instructionally highly meaningful. One dyad often employed an overt form of the behavioristic three-term contingency pattern of stimulus-response-reinforcement. It is, therefore, concluded not only that the learning opportunities for the children were overwhelmingly rich but also that learning-theoretical conceptualizations can be useful in describing at least part of the phenomena observable during the process of language transmission/acquisition. Since only a small part of the differentiated phenomena could be readily accounted for by learning theoretical conceptualizations, it is furthermore concluded that these conceptualizations do not seem to be sufficient though they appear to be necessary to account for some aspects of language transmission/acquisition.

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Moerk, E.L. A behavioral analysis of controversial topics in first language acquisition: Reinforcements, corrections, modeling, input frequencies, and the three-term contingency pattern. J Psycholinguist Res 12, 129–155 (1983). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01067408

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  • Learning Strategy
  • Language Development
  • Positive Reinforcement
  • Language Acquisition
  • Learning Opportunity