Explaining language: A behavioral critique of Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior.

SCIENTIFIC Skinner (1957) offered a behavioral account of language in his book Verbal Behavior. Compared to more traditional, structural accounts of language at the time, Skinner’s analysis attempted to identify the variables that control and maintain verbal behavior. This behavioral account of language has proven useful, especially in the area of treating language deficits for individuals with autism. However, there exist conceptual problems with Skinner’s analysis. The definition of verbal behavior and subsequent taxonomy of verbal operants (or units) is based largely on formal properties. We suggest that these formal elements of Skinner’s analysis result in arbitrary distinctions that emphasize the form of behavior or stimuli. This is problematic, at a conceptual level, as distinguishing between verbal and nonverbal behavior and distinguishing between the different verbal operants necessitates not only a functional account of stimuli but identification of the source and form of stimuli. In this paper, we examine some of the contemporary defenses and criticisms of Skinner’s analysis. Lastly, we conclude that although Skinner’s analysis of language has had practical utility, the conceptual benefits are limited. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)