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The Conflict between Behaviourism and Rationalism in Linguistics Term Paper


Linguistics and other scholars regard language as a distinct phenomenon in the society. Language contains collective implications that enhance the worth of the collaboration between individuals. It encompasses a social philosophy that is identical among individuals in the society. In language, collective ‘hums’ and meanings are accustomed to precise collective emotions and thoughts.

As such, linguistics can be defined as the utilisation of knowledge that people possess about language. The knowledge is utilised to achieve a certain purpose and to reveal communication issues in the real world. Linguistics offer knowledge about a language from a number of perspectives. It provides knowledge in terms of how the language sounds and how it is learned or acquired.

The field also provides information on how language is used. In pragmatic terms, some vivid aspects of linguistics are quite visible. Such aspects include features pertaining to communication, social factors, and context.

Present emphasis on the significance of context, modernisation of contextual conventions, structure of meaning, and related connotation reveals the varying propensities between linguistics schools. According to Chomsky (2000, p. 32), linguistics is closely related to science. The author argues that it acts both as a tool and a spirit of sciences.

Language is regarded as a productive and inventive part of science. Individuals outline their senses and knowledge in the ‘monarchy’ of their linguistic. The variances between the wisdom positions, environments, conducts, occupations, and ‘bents’ of societies from the same linguistic school are replicated in their linguistic acquirement (Lightbown & Spada, 2010).

In this paper, the author provides an introduction to behaviourism and rationalism schools of thought and their link to linguistics. Further4, the author discusses the various differences between the two schools of thought. The author also defines the ‘conducts’ within which rationalism has criticised behaviourism.

It is important to state at this juncture that when the author makes reference to language acquisition, what they have in mind is the process through which a child succeeds in mastering their native language. The major purpose of this paper is to investigate two opposing approaches to language acquisition. The two are, as already mentioned above, rationalism and behaviourism.

Rationalization and the Acquisition and Development of Language

Roots of Rationalism

Chomsky (1968) considers language to be a natural phenomenon in the society. As a natural phenomenon, language is regarded as an object that should be studied according to the norms of hard sciences. Chomsky (2000) maintains that the naturalistic approach to language attempts to structure a coherent and intelligent explanatory theory.

The theory regards as ‘real’ the various aspects of language that are addressed in the quest made by the theory. Chomsky (2000) is of the view that linguists adopting this approach aims to unify linguistics with the major natural sciences.

From a ‘Chomskyan’ perspective, linguistics is not the classificatory science in Humboldtian, Schleicherian, or Bloomfieldian tradition. On the contrary, the field attempts to provide interpretations for classification. According to Smith (2004), Chomsky has achieved this separation between classification and explanation by approaching language with the same standards applied by other mainstream scientists in their field.

In addition, Chomsky combines this perspective with the philosophical approach advocated for by Cartesian adherents. Chomsky is aware of the bankruptcy of the empiricist study of language. The scholar, as a result, concerns himself with the rationalist heritage in which he is confident to achieve fruitful findings. For this reason, he announces his attachment to this philosophical trend from the beginning of his work.

The trend was initiated by Descartes, who is regarded by many as the father figure of modern philosophy. According to Chomsky (1968), the 17th century features prominently when one analyses the history of arguments made on the nature of the mind. It is regarded as the century of genius.

The nature of mind is closely related to that of the language. As such, the 17th century is crucial when one is talking about language and how it has evolved over the years (Chomsky, 1968).

With this in mind, it is not surprising that Chomskyan fascination with the ‘glorious’ past of rationalism is reflected in his thoughts and orientations as far as linguistics is concerned. At this level of analysis, it is quite clear that Cartesian philosophy shaped Chomsky’s thoughts and led him to announce the rebirth of this trend. However, he limited his analysis to what came to be known as Chomskyan ways and instruments of analysis.

The limited scope is one of the reasons why he does not hesitate to consider his project as ‘a revolution’. He argues that regardless of the appropriateness of the term revolution, it is evident that significant changes in perspective took place during the century in question.

Before the rebirth, scientists were concerned with the study of behaviour and its products. The products in this case refer to, among others, texts and music. After the rebirth, scientists focused more on the inner mechanisms that create a link between thought and action (Chomsky, 2000).

It was Descartes who first created the line between humans and animals as far as cognition and bodily dispositions are concerned. It is for this reason why he is regarded as the pioneer of Cartesian rationalism. The philosopher made it clear that there is a remarkable and qualitative difference between the mind of human beings and the behaviour of ‘beasts’.

Undeniably, this view is reflected in Chomskyan philosophy when he claims that there are no grounds today to refute the Cartesian perspective. Chomsky (2000) contends that humans have the ability to use linguistic signs to express freely-formed thoughts. The ability is the major distinction between human beings and other animals (Chomsky, 2000).

One can then argue that language is the distinctive feature that characterises human beings. Smith (2004) asserts language is clear indication of it means to be human. To this end, the study of this phenomenon is, in itself, the study of human nature (Smith, 2004). It is quite evident that rationalism was based on the assumption that language is a unique human capacity.

Descartes did not only clarify the distinction between human beings and animals (beasts) in terms of mind and language, but also stressed the idea that the individual is free. Cartesian freedom deeply influences Chomskyan political views.

According to Chomsky, the knowledge and freedom of the individual is not shaped by bodily dispositions or the society they live in. On the contrary, man thinks and determines his life freely through his mind.

Chomskyan Rationalist Revolution and Linguistics

Chomsky insists that the empiricist speculation about language acquisition is far from being scientific. It is through ‘the internal resources’ of mind and not experience that human beings acquire knowledge. He argues that the mind is a powerful tool. It is capable of generating new thoughts and coming up with novel ways of expressing the same.

The generation and expression of thoughts, according to Chomsky (1968), is well beyond any form of training or experience. From the pedestal of Cartesian rationalism, Chomsky strongly believes in the innateness of ideas. He considers language as an independent system which resembles other internal systems in humans.

He argues that language can be regarded as an organ on its own. To this end, he equates language to other human systems that are regulated by body organs. Such features include sensory immune, and circulatory systems.

The hypothesis of ‘innate ideas’ is mainly based on the belief that children rely on innate predispositions to acquire language. In other words, they are innately-endowed with the capacity to acquire language. According to Chomsky (2000), the child possesses this innate structure from birth. Their path to maturity is largely inner-directed (Chomsky, 2000).

The claim presupposes that experience does not intervene in language acquisition. As opposed to the empiricist approach, Chomsky belittles the importance of experience in language acquisition. According to the scholar, the knowledge possessed by the child in the earliest stages of their development is more than what experience could have offered them within such a short time span.

According to him, what matters is not the environment. Rather, what matters is the innate predisposition that helps the child to acquire language as they grow. The external environment has little or no effect as far as language acquisition in humans is concerned (Chomsky, 2000).

Behaviourism and the Acquisition and Development of Language

The Origin of Behaviourism

Behaviourism is considered as the most outstanding psychologically oriented approach to second language teaching. According to Mangubhai (2007), the perspective can be traced back to the studies on classical conditioning by Russian psychologist, Pavlov. The studies were made famous through the replications carried out by Skinner (Skinner, 1957).

Typically, behaviourists claim that there are many forms of learning in the society, including that which involves the acquisition of language. According to them, learning is synonymous with habit. The formal or rational environment, according to behaviourists, is an essential and determinant factor in learning. Moreover, learning is realised through stimulation, responding to stimulation, and receiving feedback to responses.

According to the behaviourists, teaching a second language is based on the assumption that children learn their first language by imitation and reinforcement. As such, the children form a habit that involves usage of the language acquired (Lightbown & Spada, 2010). According to Skinner (1957), learners are first exposed to linguistic input from other speakers in their environment.

They then form meaningful associations between the language, objects, and events around them. The repetition of those associations through experience turns into ‘linguistic habits’. The repetition is achieved through reinforcements and corrective feedback.

Principles of the Behavioural Theory and its Link to Linguistics

The behaviourist theory shares a belief that children learn oral language from their interaction with other people around them. The learning is achieved through imitation, rewards, and practice.

The adults around the child provide them with stimuli and rewards necessary for learning to take place (Reutzel & Cooter, 2004). Children attempt to imitate the sounds made by other people around them. They are rewarded by role models through praise and affection.

On the other hand, the behaviourist theory is castigated for several reasons. A major concern is based on the real value or importance of rewards. The theory places so much emphasis on rewards as far as language acquisition is concerned. Critics argue that some parents are not around or fail to pay attention when their children are learning to speak.

Behaviourists also argue that language acquisition is largely informed by rewards and punishments. Critics wonder whether or not language acquisition will stop if the rewards are withdrawn (Reutzel & Cooter, 2004). There are other arguments made against the theory.

According to Reutzel and Cooter (2004), children may learn the use and meaning of abstract words without instructions or stimuli from people around them. There is also the argument of uniformity of language acquisition among humans in the society.

According to Reutzel and Cooter (2004), one can observe human behaviour in stimulus-response interactions in the society. A number of behaviourists have made attempts to establish the link between particular behavioural patterns. Thorndike is one these pioneers.

Basically, the behaviourist theory of stimulus-response learning pays much attention to reinforcement and reward (Rivers, 1968). The link is similar to that documented by Pavlov in his research. According to the studies by this scholar, there is a close link between stimulus and response. The two are especially critical in the acquisition of language.

According to this theory, children acquire native language and other habits via varied babblings. Such efforts on the part of the child are indicative of imitations of the actions of the subject and objects around them. The child is rewarded for such explicit efforts to acquire language. The rewards encourage the child to continue with their imitations and efforts at stringing words.

Through such processes, the child continues to emit sounds and groups of words. As they grow up, they combine the sentences via generalisations and analogy. In some complicated cases, the child is conditioned to commit errors by articulating permissible structures of speech.

By the age of sixty or seventy months, the ‘illegible’ words and sentences by the child develop into coherent speech. Little by little, they are internalised as implicit speech. As such, some utterances made by the child are similar to those made by adults. Therefore, it is rather obvious that the behaviourist theory is one that focuses on stimulus-response psychology.

Behaviourism and Rationalism in Linguistics

The question of language acquisition is not new in linguistics and other sciences. Some language philosophers like Wittgenstein, Quine, and Putnam were of the view that the question of language acquisition can be easily solved. The question, according to them, can be solved by linking the phenomenon to other issues like the nature of language and the nature of linguistic knowledge.

However, other philosophers lime Dummet express a pessimistic view with regard to acquisition of language. The scholar considers the question of language acquisition as misleading. In other words, the questions of linguistic meaning, linguistic knowledge, and the essence of human language are purely philosophical. As such, the questions can only lead to philosophical answers.

As a result, Dummet raised the need for empirical studies of language acquisition. The studies rely on the cooperation between linguistics and psychology. In addition, the studies are informed by the available scientific methods.

Apparently, behaviourism has its disadvantages. However, it cannot be disputed that the learning process is mainly a behaviourist process and a verbal behaviour. Behaviourism is important when teaching a second language to children. The theory informs the nature of the exercises and tasks needed to enhance learning. The exercises take different forms.

Some are written, while others are administered orally. All these tasks treat language as a response to stimulus. The theory is also critical when it comes to controlled observation. It helps in the formulation of rules that govern behaviour.

The approach has a major impact on linguistics, leading to numerous methods of teaching language. British structuralism has established a linguistic theory referred to as situational language teaching. The theory is the hub of numerous language teaching and learning theories. The new move has become very fashionable in Europe and the USA.


In this paper, the author analysed two approaches of language acquisition. The two are the rationalist and behaviourist approaches. A conclusion is made to the effect that the rationalist approach is more scientific and well structured compared to the behaviourist approach. However, according to Sampson (2005), the rationalist approach by Chomsky and other scholars has its own limitations.

As such, one can argue that both the rationalist and empiricist approaches to language acquisition are valid. The difference between the two, according to this author, is in the perspective from which each approach considers the question of language acquisition.

Belittling the importance of the environment is too idealistic, while belittling the importance of language acquisition device is too realistic (Sampson, 2005). It is no surprise, then, that the battle will continue until both of these approaches recognise the importance of each other.


Chomsky, N. (1968). Language and mind. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Chomsky, N. (2000). New horizons in the study of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. (2010). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mangubhai, F. (2007). The moral and ethical dimensions of language teaching. Australian Journal of Education, 51(2), 178-189.

Reutzel, D., & Cooter, R. (2000). Teaching children to read. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill.

Rivers, M. W. (1968). Teaching foreign language skills. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Sampson, G. (2005). The ‘language instinct’ debate. New York: Continuum.

Skinner, B. (1957). Verbal behaviour. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Smith, N. (2004). Chomsky: Ideas and ideals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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