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Operant Conditioning in the Pre-Linguistic Development Stage: Theories of Chomsky, Vygotsky and Piaget

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In the context of theories on child language development, the behaviourist theory of operant conditioning proposed by B.F. Skinner in Verbal Behaviour (1957), is one of the earliest, and arguably considered the most outmoded by many in the field. The basic principle of operant conditioning is that behaviour which is rewarded or reinforced will be strengthened (Jayasundara, 2018, p.247). Conversely, behaviour that is not reinforced will fade out in a manner akin to natural selection. In Skinner’s view, parents and other caregivers provide external input to teach children language through operant conditioning, by rewarding their early linguistic endeavours, and this selective reinforcement gradually structures the child’s linguistic behaviour (Harris, 1992).

The reinforcement in the experiments that preceded Skinner’s human analogy were largely conducted on animals, and often had food as the reinforcer. However, with humans, the reward for correct behaviour can range from an edible treat or a favourite activity, to vocalised praise or a social signal like a smile. In the infant nursery setting, we reward babies for example, verbally, by affectionate touching, with movement, with vocal intonation or with facial expressions, and reinforce positive behaviour specifically vocalisation. (2.2, 2.3, 2.5, 5.2, 5.3).

While other academics such as Chomsky, Piaget and Vygotsky have put forward their own theories of early language acquisition and development, Skinner’s theory by comparison remains relatively undervalued. In this essay, I would propose that Skinner’s theory of acquiring language through operant conditioning is not only a viable technique, but indeed the most appropriate technique that has any considerable effect at the pre-linguistic development stage. (3.1, 3.2, 3.3) With reference to other studies, in conjunction with my own work involving vocalised positive reinforcement, I would submit that while the other myriad theories have a place in language acquisition and development, they come at a later stage, (after the holophrase stage) and that until the child has engaged their language acquisition device (Chomsky, 1965, 1972, 1982), a strategy of applying operant conditioning encourages both increased vocalisation, the correct syllabic phrasing and, sets the baby on the right path towards their next developmental stage.

Literature Review

The pre-linguistic stage

Infants quickly learn how to communicate with their carers, long before they can speak or use any form of language. At this pre-linguistic stage (0-12 months) infants undergo a range of developments in their ability to communicate. From as early as 3 months old, infants recognise their carer’s voice and some facial expressions such as smiling. They are stimulated by different tones of voice and begin to vocalise themselves by cooing and gurgling when content. By the time they are 12 months old, most infants understand what is being said to them and are starting to communicate their needs by pointing or showing their carers objects. At this age, babies have an increasing awareness that words are associated with people and objects. They may understand simple phrases such as “bye bye” and can imitate simple words. They also begin to respond to simple instructions such as “come here” or “clap your hands” and they can string together vowels and consonants to make repetitive sounds.

Researchers looking into the social function of babies’ babbling determined that “an important function of pre-linguistic vocalisation may be to elicit parental behaviour in ways that facilitate the infant's own learning about speech and language” (Albert, Schwade, & Goldstein 2018, p.1). In this way, infants use parental feedback to their babbling to learn new vocal forms. When mothers exhibit vocal imitation and sensitive speech in response to the babies’ babbling, the babies are actually prompting a social interaction that enables their own language development (Albert, Schwade, & Goldstein, 2018, p.1).

Evidence also suggests that caregivers’ response to infants’ babbling significantly boosts the development of their pre-linguistic vocalisations. A study conducted on how babbling facilitates rapid phonological learning concluded that “infants given contingent feedback rapidly restructured their babbling, incorporating phonological patterns from caregivers' speech, but infants given non contingent feedback did not” (Goldstein & Schwade, 2008, p.515). This indicates that proactive linguistic intervention through means of response, particularly contingent or linked response, stimulates the linguistic development of infants even at this pre-linguistic stage, where complete sentence structure is still far in their futures.

Operant conditioning

The behaviourist perspective of learning is primed by two major theories: classical conditioning (see Pavlov) and operant conditioning (see Skinner 1957). Classical conditioning explains how we learn behaviours through association, and operant conditioning explains how we learn how the consequences (reinforcers) of behaviours shape future behaviour. Skinner’s contention (1957) was that language acquisition could be explained by operant conditioning, a technique described by (Domjan, 2010) as a method that “can be used to target and increase a behaviour by pairing performance of the target behaviour with a positive or rewarding outcome.”

Behaviourist academic B.F. Skinner, first experimented with operant conditioning in an investigation involving rats and pigeons in a box with food-dispensing levers (Skinner 1935). Skinner was able to teach the rats and pigeons which lever to deliberately press in order to dispense food. Thus Skinner was able to infer that based on the presentation of express stimuli, certain behaviours would be shaped by its consequence (Harris 1992). The same stimulus-response interaction is also observable in humans and the behaviourist theory considers all learning to be the establishment of habits as a result of reinforcement and reward (Rivers 1968).

In infants, babbling is a natural habit at the 3-month stage. Since certain “recognisable” babblings are rewarded through vocal or visual stimulus (praise or a smile from the caregiver), this reward reinforces further articulation of the same sort of grouping of syllables. Thus good habits, in this sense words, are built up over time by reinforcing the “good” sounds while the “bad” sounds go unrewarded and are eliminated from the practice.

However, Skinner’s theory did not go unchallenged. His claim was that children “learn language through operant conditioning, merely involve[ing] the attachment of a response to a stimulus, through the use of carefully controlled reinforcement” (Harris 1992, p.4). His intellectual opponent, Noam Chomsky, argued that the set of rules that a child would have to learn to acquire a language are far too complex and manifold for a child to learn them all through operant conditioning (Chomsky, 1965). Chomsky instead posited that there exists a naturally occurring (innate) device, which he termed as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) that is present only in the human brain, providing human children with a unique ability to acquire language (Chomsky, 1986). He considered language learning to be like physical growth and that only when a child hits a certain age, would he be able to learn language when his LAD “activates”.

Since this debate in the 1950s, when Chomsky argued that Skinner’s theories could not explain syntactic acquisition, psychologists and child development academics have generally avoided explicitly invoking operant or instrumental conditioning as a learning mechanism for language among human children as if Chomsky “won” the debate (Sturdy & Nicoladis 2017), and the field moved on into other areas (see Vygotsky and Piaget). However, this was never the case and the concept that the two theories are not diametrically opposed and can coexist is largely academically undervalued. Indeed, operant conditioning influences language long after language acquisition has developed – consider adult adoption of differing syntax and lexicons for different occupations or social circles. Correct language attracts approval, which encourages the habit of speaking in a certain way throughout one’s lifetime.

Whitehurst & Valdez-Menchaca (1988) posited that it might also be possible that children are able to learn at least some level of language through observation, claiming that general cognitive and congenital linguistic mechanisms would ensure that learning occurred. They also however contend that it is also possible, as Skinner insinuates, that language is in fact operant behaviour and if so, children should not be able to acquire language unless parents and others reinforce it. They conclude however, that some characteristics of language acquisition might depend on reinforcement, while some may not (Whitehurst & Valdez-Menchaca 1988).

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A further study on the role of reinforcement in grammatical development by Brown and Hanlon (1970) suggested that parents in fact only give corrective feedback on the dimension of truth value, rather than grammar, which led them to argue that reinforcement is not as important in grammatical development.

Despite these studies, there is a body of work that still supports behavioural learning through operant conditioning and an amount of which expressly covers language acquisition with a focus on the pre-linguistic stage. It seems based on evidence, that this largely academically neglected concept could be intrinsic to learning at the pre-linguistic development stage and could in fact be the exclusive methodology in early infant language acquisition.

Evidence that operant conditioning works at pre-linguistic stage

The use of operant conditioning on infants at the pre-linguistic stage is not a new phenomenon and indeed there exists a body of work that corroborates the benefits of operant conditioning on the 0–12-month age group. The studies have investigated general behavioural conditioning such as infant head-turning (Siqueland & Lipsitt 1966) which was inspired and cites a classic study by Rheingold & Ross (1959) which first found that an adult's responses contingent on the vocalising of 3-month-old infants, could bring about an increase in that behaviour. This finding was further corroborated in Weisberg (1963).

Beyond Rheingold & Ross (1959) and Weisberg (1963), there have been numerous studies, focusing on operant conditioning in relation to language development and acquisition and several specifically at the pre-linguistic stage. Goldstein et al., (2003) in an attempt to demonstrate similarities between songbird vocal learning and human speech learning, designed an experiment testing the impact of social reinforcement on vocal production of human infants. This was based on previous work with songbirds and other works exploring the mating behaviour of female cowbirds (West and King 1988) where positive reinforcement of a particular song was a natural occurrence. In the human experiment, Goldstein et al., (2003) found that when the mothers socially reinforced the infant’s vocalisations, through smiling and moving towards the infant, after just 10 minutes, the infants produced more and higher quality vocalisations than those in the control group. Thus clearly exemplifying contingent social feedback acting as a reinforcer with infants.

A study by Poulson (1983) and another by Pelaez et al. (2011a) further evaluated the reinforcing effect of maternal vocal imitation of infant vocalisations. In Poulson (1983), it was found that consistent reinforcement in 2.5 – 3-month old infants significantly enhanced vocalisation. Pelaez et al. (2011a) found almost unanimously increased babbling when the mother’s vocal imitation was used as a reinforcer.

It is clear from the evidence gathered in the previous studies that there is some merit in reinforcing vocalisation in infants using verbal, tactile and audial techniques. This would suggest that Skinner’s theory - that external input combined with positive reinforcement of good behaviours - has much applicability to the pre-linguistic age-group. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that Skinner’s theory enhances infants’ early linguistic endeavours and enables setting them up for the holophrase stage where Chomsky’s (1965, 1972 ,1982) language acquisition device, Vygotsky’s (1978) social interactionism and Piaget’s language assimilation and accommodation (1952) would take better effect.

Practice and Analysis

In my setting, we practice vocalised positive reinforcement with the 0 – 12-month age group. It is at this point in their development that they start babbling and vocalising and to encourage this, we ensure that they have a stimulating environment (tactile toys, colours, auditory experiences) as well as provide auditory stimulation. (1.1, 1.2, 2.2, 2.3, 2.5, 7.2) We believe in positive reinforcement when a baby achieves even the smallest of milestones. (2.1) Whether it is working towards crawling, standing and taking their first steps, or whether it is transitioning from babbling into finally being able to say “da da” or “ma ma”, we vocally praise them; “converse” with them; and socially engage with them as much as possible. (2.2, 2.3, 2.5, 2.6, 3.1, 3.2)

This external input of interaction takes many forms, including verbal praise (where we say things like ‘well-done’, ‘good-boy’, ‘good-girl’, ‘clever boy’ and “whooping”) which are accompanied by positive facial expressions such as smiling; physical gestures such as clapping and high fives; eye contact; higher register intonation; motherese / caregiverese phrasing and; affectionate touching. We do this to stimulate and encourage the babies to vocalise more – the more they vocalise, the more we administer the social reward, hence positively reinforcing their behaviour. (5.2, 5.3)

We find that through the constant praising (reinforcing) of their positive achievements, big or small, or conversing with the babies and stimulating them through smiling or touch, the babies respond by increasing the activity. (4.1, 4.5, 8.5) In terms of language and vocalisation, the babies in our care have repeatedly responded to our praises by vocalising even more, and we in turn respond by praising them in an ever positive cycle. A study by Albert, Schwade & Goldstein (2018) showed that an increased rate of response from the caregiver meant more language-learning opportunities for the baby, and the hope here is that they keep vocalising exponentially. We also focus on contextualising the infant’s babbling so that they build a frame of reference for the things that they are “talking” about. For example, when they point at a toy and make a noise, we reinforce the language by naming the toy, allowing the baby to experience the syntactical framing and sentence structure surrounding the interaction. (1.3) Though we are obviously not expecting this to generate full sentences, it has been found that the infant’s own vocalisations serve to structure social interactions in ways that facilitate learning (Albert, Schwade & Goldstein 2018).

While other language development theories are indeed vital, operant conditioning seems to be an effective tool at this stage. We know that responding to babies’ babbling triggers and enhances their brain development, (reference) and this can only put the child in a better position for when he approaches his LAD (see Chomsky), and when he is confronted by a widening environment and social sphere. There is research to suggest that there is a correlation between early babbling and later language, with babies with more advanced syllables in their babbling having more advanced speech and vocabulary when they’re older. In the holophrase stage, the child’s environment is more suitable to his form of development, (see Vygotsky) both in other learning areas as well as in language development, as they are more mobile and can interact more socially and with their environment (see Piaget).

Currently, UK Government interest in bolstering language acquisition at the pre-linguistic stage has been minimal however, Education Secretary Damian Hinds announced 30th April 2018, that new support to help parents improve their children’s early language and literacy skills at home before they start school to close the so-called ‘word-gap’. By investing in projects run by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) the government hopes to provide practical advice to parents so they can help their children learn new words through simple steps like reading and singing nursery rhymes. They have also opened an £8.5m programme for local authorities to fund projects to improve early language and literacy development for disadvantaged children. Though this support aims to target children who are already speaking, it is evident that the Department for Education is looking to target and invest in Early Years initiatives and upon further evidence, they may find a need to bolster learning even at the per-linguistic stage. REF


Having witnessed a degree of success first-hand in my setting of positively reinforcing early vocalisation in infants, and based on the research by a host of academics, I believe that there is a compelling case for using operant conditioning as a language acquisition tool on infants at the pre-linguistic stage. By socially rewarding babies who are babbling, we are reinforcing the “good” set of consonants and diminishing the nonsensical. By interacting with infants in a conversational way, (2.4, 2.5) we are providing the external input necessary for them to learn basic sentence structure and syntax, if only phonetically, to assist their understanding of social interaction. Finally, by using the context of the environment and naming the objects that the infants may be holding or pointing at, through repetition, we are reinforcing the phonetic syllables needed when the children advance to the holophrase.

Based on the research reviewed, I would contend that operant conditioning is especially vital for language development in pre-linguistic infants, and may in fact be the only appropriate learning theory for this development stage. In this regard, I believe the work of B.F. Skinner is undervalued as a tool. This is not to say that the other theories don’t apply, as they all have merits and degrees of value, but I believe that the theories of Chomsky, Vygotsky and Piaget become more applicable immediately following the pre-linguistic stage, and that until the child has engaged their language acquisition device (Chomsky), a strategy of applying operant conditioning encourages vocalisation, encourages the correct syllabic phrasing and, sets the baby on the right path towards their next developmental stage, and at the very least, the practice can do nothing but enhance the infant’s learning experience.

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Operant Conditioning in the Pre-Linguistic Development Stage: Theories of Chomsky, Vygotsky and Piaget. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from
“Operant Conditioning in the Pre-Linguistic Development Stage: Theories of Chomsky, Vygotsky and Piaget.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
Operant Conditioning in the Pre-Linguistic Development Stage: Theories of Chomsky, Vygotsky and Piaget. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 11 Dec. 2023].
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