Friday, November 3, 2017

Operant conditioning rides again in language teaching!
 "The major difference between rats and people is that rats learn from experience." B.F Skinner

Quick quiz: What is "operant conditioning" and of what value is it to you in understanding language learning and teaching? If you can't answer either part of that question, unfortunately, you're not alone. Your formal training may well have lacked any thoughtful consideration of the concept of "operant conditioning". Following Chomsky's devastating attack on it and behaviorism and the ascendancy of cognitive/constructivist theory, it has in most learning frameworks appeared to have been at least dismissed, at best. Not really, according to an excellent new piece by Sturdy and Nicoladis, "How Much of Language Acquisition Does Operant Conditioning Explain?" -- it has just gone underground.

Their basic argument: "Researchers have ended up inventing learning mechanisms that, in actual practice, not only resemble but also in fact are examples of operant conditioning (OC) by any other name they select."

According to the meta-analysis, the most persuasive cases or contexts discussed are (a) socialization, (b) ritualization and (c) early child language learning. At least for one whose "basic training" in psychology as an undergraduate happened in 1962, it is a breath of fresh (familiar) air, not exactly vindication, but pretty close. It applies especially to the more embodied dimensions of pronunciation instruction, such as physical work on articulation and the felt sense of sound production in the vocal mechanism--and, of course, haptic engagement.

But it also is fundamental to understanding and using context-based feedback that is critical to socialization or social constructivism, including the role of ritual, pragmatics and long-term reinforcement mechanisms.

If you don't get a full-body, warm fuzzy from this piece, read it again holding a cup of hot tea or coffee. 

Required reading.

Sturdy CB and Nicoladis E (2017) How Much of Language Acquisition Does Operant Conditioning Explain?. Front. Psychol. 8:1918. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01918

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