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Behaviorism, Innatism and Other theories of Learning

Behaviorism, Innatism and Cognitivism theories of Learning

Language is an essential component of human life. It is the language that distinguishes humankind from all other animals of the animal kingdom. Though various animals, birds, and other living creatures have a communication system and convey their messages to their fellow beings. But the human language is the most unique and beautiful communication system in the universe. It provides a unique ability to human beings for their communications. This uniqueness of expression among the various communication systems gives more importance to language. It motivates researchers, Linguists, and language philosophers for a better understanding of language that how language fits into human activities, like communication, the transmission of knowledge, how the speech acts are used or can be used to fulfill various aims. Different linguists studied the phenomenon of language according to their perspective, knowledge, and abilities.

Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Stoics provide their views regarding language. According to the Greek version of language and words, every phoneme in a language which makes changes in the meaning of words represents the basic ideas of sentiments. While convention only plays a tiny part in the play. Plato had a view regarding the names of things that these are by nature. According to him, naive names of things or morphemes have natural accuracy as each phoneme represents a basic idea or sentiment. After some time, He accepted the reality that there are also some social conventions involved, the idea that phonemes have particular meaning is faulty. Aristotle’s concern was focused on the logic, categories, and meaning creation. He individualized various things into varieties. So the language is a topic of interest for researchers from ancient times, and scholars of every age try to put their contribution in it.

The basic questions about the language as, how does a human being learn a language? What does the process involve in language learning? What are the requirements for language learning? Why do People learn a second language? So various scholars tried to find the answers to these questions according to the needs of that time. To comprehend and understand this notion of how people learn languages, various scholars conduct various studies and researches and present multiple theories. B.F. Skinner presented the very first theory regarding language learning and called it Behaviourism.  Thorndike and Watson also take part in it. Then there was the nativist theory that preaches the element of Universal grammar and Language Acquisition device, LAD. In contrast, the third theory of learning was presented by Educational psychologist Jean Piaget and called the Cognitive theory of learning.  These theories describe the language learning process of a child as well as an adult. What process is involved in L1 learning and how a person acquires L2. These things are going to discuss in the theories.

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Among the Behaviorism, Innatism, and other Second Language learning Theories, Behaviourism theory is the first one. B.F Skinner, Thorndike, and Watson presented the behaviorist theory of learning. According to the behaviorist theory of learning, “all behavior is no more than a response to external stimuli, and there’s no innate programming within a human being to learn a language at birth.” Behaviourism describes that all language learning developments are processed by environmental influence. Learning is nothing more than the teaching of new behaviors based on environmental conditions. 

second learning theory

According to behaviorists, the theory of conditioning is a universal learning process. As Brown (1987: 17) describes it, “the behaviouristic approach focuses on the immediately perceptible aspects of linguistic behavior – the publicly observable responses. Learning occurs when there are changes in behavior and observable as evidence of changing”. In this theory of learning, feeling, emotions, and mental processes are not accepted, though behaviorists agree with the existence of mind. They consider the language learning process as a mechanical system that is learned through imitation and repetition. Human beings observe first and master that action by repeating and exercising until it becomes a habit. They provide the example that children follow and repeat the steps, sounds, and patterns that happen around them, and at last, they get excellence and learn that behavior. So as per the behaviorist approach of learning, the second language can be acquired through the practice and drill. According to them, learning a new language is like learning a new habit.

This approach strictly follows that a learner is passive, and his mind is like a clean slate, and behavior or learning is learned through reinforcement. It is the reinforcement that makes the response happen again. As he observes something, and repeat the action by practicing it, he learns regarding it. So all learning goes through this process as human beings get a stimulus from the environment, then by repeating and practicing it. According to this learning theory, there are two types of conditioning of the behaviors;

Classic Conditioning

The theory says that learning is possible through habit developing, association, and substitution. There is a conditioned response to the neutral stimuli. In a natural way, classical conditioning is a reflex action. It occurs when someone naturally responds to a stimulus of his environment. A particular stimulus produces a specific response. This type of conditioning is adopted in L1 learning, and the child produces various sounds. Suppose when parents try to teach manners to the children by asking them to say Thank you and whenever they give them a toy or food and ask them to repeat it again and again. Every time when somebody will give them a toy or something else, they will have to repeat those words.

Behavioral or operant conditioning

 This type of conditioning occurs when a response to a stimulus is reinforced. Or we can say that operant conditioning is a simple feedback system; E.g., there is a reward for the production of specific response then the response will be more successful and productive.  The most common example of Operant conditioning is in educational institutions. Here students show their fears, anxieties. They have a fear of failure, fewer marks, and public speaking. This type of conditioning is adopted in L2 learning and very helpful for this purpose. E.g., in L2 Learning class, if a student performs well. He gets reward and praise from the teacher. So this positive reinforcement plays a vital role in building up his morale, and for the next time, he tries more and more to perform better. Other students also try to perform better to get praise, good marks, and rewards from the teacher.


Applications of Theory

When we study the uses of this learning theory in language learning setup, we find that we learn from the imitation (classical or operant conditioning). The mind of the newborn baby is like a clean slate(tabula rasa). The behaviorist teaching methodology or learning module follows the“skill and drill” procedure. Consistent repetition and exercises is an effective reinforcement of response patterns. According to the Behaviorist approach, when a language learner gets praise, good grades for his learning, it helps him to learn those things effectively. If a person does not receive kind remarks, recognition, or good grades for his correct answers, then he becomes passive and does not show interest in his learning. So the role of this positive and negative reinforcement is significant in the learning process. Children learn the first language unintentionally, here the positive support of their caregivers, parents, and family members play an essential role in their learning. While at the second language learning phase, they follow the imitation, practice, and response. At the second language learning stage, positive and negative reinforcement also has a significant role in the learning process. As someone practices more and more as healthy reinforcement, his performance goes good to better.

Read also: Second Language learning Theories

Criticism on Behaviorism

Behaviourism does not study all the ways, and the process involves in the language learning process. As there are various levels of learning and also learners have different capabilities and speed of learning. So all learners can not learn in the same way. Someone learns one particular task in a short time while another person takes more time for the same language learning task. Behaviourism does not include the personal language learning abilities of people. While critics think that human language is a complex system of learning, and these learning activities can not develop through behaviorist techniques. Behaviourism does not include the personal abilities of individuals in education that vary from person to person. One point or thing that motivates one person is not necessary to drive another one.

Second learning theory
criticism on Behaviorism

Noam Chomsky was the main critique of Behaviourism. He argued that people can not learn a language through repetition and reinforcement. Based on the above-said point, he produces his theory of learning with the use of language acquisition device as well as the concept of universal grammar.

Nativist theory of learning

Noam Chomsky presented the nativist theory. This theory is most prominent among the Behaviorism, Innatism, and other Second Language learning Theories. He gave his opinion in criticism of behaviorism. According to the Nativist theory, all human beings can not learn in the same way by repeating and reinforcement. Here is his approach of Nativism. He introduces the concept of Universal Grammar and Language Acquisition Device, LAD, as well as Competence and Performance.

He describes the point that children do not learn the language as behaviorism tells us. Children do not repeat what their parents, caregivers, and elders say but produce their own words, phrases, and sentences; even some of them they have never heard before. There is a series of errors in the children’s language learning process, and no amount of correct input or failure and the correction will stop from learning better. They even do not learn grammar, rules, and various fundamentals of language at this stage. Moreover, adults and aged people do not determine the Second language in the same way. According to this theory, there must be some innate abilities, structure, and genetic components that help individuals in language learning. The other point the nativist theory mentions is that the learning speed of children is so high, and if they follow the behaviorist approach of learning, then they must take more time than two years for L1learning. This point also shows that if only imitation and reinforcement are the learning ability than species of animals in the world can even speak like human beings. But it does not happen. Only human beings have these unique characteristics of language. It shows that there are innate abilities that enable human beings in language learning. According to Chomskian theory, “humans are not genetically programmed to learn one or another language” and that if he “brought up a Japanese baby in Boston, it would speak Boston English.” If he raised his child in Japan, it “would speak Japanese.” As per this theory, all human languages have the same innate structure, and Noam Chomsky calls it Universal Grammar. His Summarizing comment regarding behaviorism is that; “if our minds were a blank slate, we would be very impoverished creatures, indeed.” The difference between the B.F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky view is that Former says the language is learned while last says the language is innate and developed by time.

learning theory
Nativistic learning theory

He also introduces the concept of competence and performance. According to him, the knowledge of a language that one person has is his competence, while the actual use of this knowledge of the language is called performance. The Language acquisition device and universal grammar etc. comes in the category of competence, and the spoken and written experiences come into the concept of performance.

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 Application of Nativist theory

Nativist theory of learning describes that the language learning process of human beings is happened due to the natural and innate abilities. Chomsky says that Children are born with hard-wired Language Acquisition Device, LAD, in their minds. This language acquisition device is the set of language learning tools. These are naturally gifted to only humankind. Moreover, he also says that all languages have universal grammar patterns that are already existed in the mind of a newborn. So Children are born with the Universal Grammar wired into their brains. This grammar offers a certain limited number of possibilities – for example, over the word order of a typical sentence. Some languages have a basic SVO structure. 75% languages of the world follow this structure while other 25% languages of the word follow SOV, VSO or VOS structure of grammar.

Subject                                               Verb                                                      Object

He                                                    went                                                   to school

Chomskian Language Learning approach follows this table:


Age Level                                                                           Language Stage


Crying                                                                                      Birth

Cooing                                                                                    6 Weeks

Babbling                                                                                  6 Months

Intonation Pattern                                                                   8 Months

One Word Utterance                                                                1 Year

Two Words Utterance                                                              18 Months

Questions Negatives                                                                2 Years, 3 Months

Rare  or Complex Construction                                                5 Years

Mature Speech                                                                        10 Years

Moreover, Nativists consider as every individual has innate abilities for language learning. Human beings also have a Language Acquisition Device and the same universal grammar for language learning. So there is not much difference in L1 and L2Language learning. According to the Nativist language learning process for both L1 and L2, Languages go in the same ways.

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Criticism on Nativism

Chomskian concept of Universal grammar and Language Acquisition Device is the idea of Competence and Performance. Competence is what people know about language rules, grammar, and vocabulary, while performance is that people say or perform. Here Chomsky ignores some points and things that people use. Chomsky relies only on people’s judgment and intuitions as to what is wrong and right.

Chomskyan concept of Universal grammar differs from central syntax. Or we can say that there is a difference between peripheral grammar and universal grammar. But here the historical concepts are ignored as in the 18th century Dean swift could write ‘we were’ and generally we write in the modern era ‘we are.’ in the current scenario we consider the former is wrong while last is correct. But at that time, Dean Swift did not feel that he is at blunder and writing wrongly. According to Chomsky, the point in linguistics in core grammar. But how a person can determine what is core and what is periphery. As per some grammarian, all grammar is conventional, and there is no need to make the Chomskian Distinction.

Chomsky gives more importance to grammar, while the meaning of the words has secondary importance here. But the meaning of sentences is also significant, for example, when we see a sentence such as ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.’ It is a grammatically correct sentence. And as per the transformational Grammarians worthy enough to study. But it does not convey exact understandable meaning. Chomsky also ignores the social conditions where the language is used and produced. He also ignores the particular situation in which a child learns his first language.

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Cognitive Theory of Learning

“I find myself opposed to the view of knowledge as a passive copy of reality.“ Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was a psychologist, and his contribution to the field of learning was his most outstanding theory of knowledge. This theory is called the scientific method as well; it is also famous as the Cognitive theory of learning. This theory has a prominent position among the Behaviorism, Innatism, Cognitive Theory of Learning, and other Second Language learning Theories.

            According to the psychological constructivist view, learning is proceeded by the interplay of assimilation (adjusting new experiences to fit prior concepts) and accommodation. Assimilation is adjusting new knowledge and skills to fit previous ideas. While accommodation is the adjusting concepts to meet new experiences. These two concepts derive not only to short-term learning but also to long-term developmental change. And the Cognitive theory’s primary focus is on long-term developments. Piaget observes the children keenly and then proposed the cognition development through four stages. His four steps start from the birth of the baby and lead to the adolescence. Here stages mean a system of thinking patterns. Schemas, equilibrium, assimilation, and accommodation, as well as four steps of theory, are the core components.

Second learning language theories
Cognitive learning theory


It is the description of both the mental and physical actions required in understanding and knowing. Schemas provide a way to organize your knowledge of the world. In other words, we can say these are the building blocks of learning. Without these building blocks, the world is incomprehensible. It is the cognitive structure of knowledge about various things as oneself, others, and events.

Equilibrium, Assimilation, and Accommodation

`           Equilibrium maintains the balance between the mind and the outer world (environment). Assimilation is adjusting new learning and experiences to fit prior concepts. Accommodation is the adjusting concepts to meet new skills.

 Piaget’s Stages of Cognition Development

These stages always follow the same pattern and come systematically. There is not any option to skip a particular step. Each stage is a significant transformation of the stage before it. Each later stage incorporated the earlier stages into itself.

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  • Sensorimotor Stage

This stage of learning starts from the birth of a baby and goes to the age of two years. In this stage, the infant builds an understanding of reality and himself/herself through interaction with his/her surrounding. At this stage, the baby enables one to differentiate himself/herself from the environment. And the process of learning takes place through assimilation and accommodation. Piaget also divided this stage into six minor steps for a better understanding.

  • Preoperational Stage

This stage starts from the age of two years and goes to the 7th year of the age. At this stage, though, a child has learned various basic things, but he is still unable to conceptualize the abstract realities, and he needs concrete physical situations. Here objects are classified by there features in simple ways.

  • Concrete operational Stage

This stage of cognitive learning starts from the age of 7 and goes to the 11th year of the age. As the physical experience increases, accommodation increases. So the child begins to think about abstract things and conceptualize the logical structure of the things that explains his physical experience.

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  • Formal operational stage

This stage of the cognitive theory of learning starts from 11 years and goes to 15th year of age. At this stage, the cognition of the child reaches its peak. Now he does not need concrete objects to make a reasoning. At this stage, the learner is capable of deductive and hypothetical reasoning. Now the abilities of a learner are similar to adults.

Applications of the theory

Parents and teachers can apply this theory for the growth and development of children as well as learning. Teachers can also get help from this theory while designing and distributing the syllabus. According to cognitivism, second language learning is a conscious process. We can say that the mind plays a significant role in learning activities. Cognitivism says that the mental process plays an essential role in L2 learning. They describe the whole process of learning in the form of cognition and development theory.

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Criticism of Piaget Theory of Learning

Research methods of Piaget’s theory are not authentic and reliable as per some critics. His research sample was only his own three children. He also claims for the research sample except for his children, but that sample is also from the well educated and elite class. So due to this unauthentic sample, its results cannot be generalized to a larger population.

He does not mention the research sample selection process. Here is not any detail about the selection of the sample. He also provides tiny statistical information about how he arrived at his conclusions.

He does not clearly define his research variables. For the replicate observations, how one variable leads to change in another. Research needs to provide a precise definition of each variable. And most of the Piaget’s terminologies lacking these operational definitions. So it is problematic for researchers to replicate his work accurately.


D.C. Phillips & Jonas F. Soltis, Perspectives on Learning, Chapter 3. Teachers College Press.

Skinner, B. F. (2011). About behaviorism. Vintage.

Watson, J. B. (2013). Behaviorism. Read Books Ltd.

Pavlov, I. P., & Anrep, G. V. (2003). Conditioned reflexes. Courier Corporation.

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children (Vol. 8, No. 5, pp. 18-1952). New York: International Universities Press.

Piaget, J. (1959). The language and thought of the child (Vol. 5). Psychology Press. Chicago

Piaget, J. (1976). Piaget’s theory. In Piaget and his school (pp. 11-23). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Written & Reviewed by; Muhammad Asad Kasra,


M.Phil Scholar, Riphah Institute of Language and Literature, Riphah International University Lahore, Pakistan.


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