An Inconvenient Truth


Language and 'Verbal Behavior' are not the same thing

How can verbal behavior not be the same as language. After all, when we speak, it is not verbal behavior? Well...kind of...yes...speaking colloquially. And because 'verbal behavior' sounds like what we do when we speak, it's easy to think its the same as using language when we speak. But "Verbal Behavior" (in capitals) is not about using language when we speak. "Verbal Behaivor", as put forth by Skinner, is a highly technical conceptual system, based on behavioral theory, which attempts to lay out what determines what we say. What determines speakers' verbal behavior. In this conceptual system, there are only 'verbal units'; The sounds issued in the presence of controlling stimuli.

Skinner's Analysis of Verbal Behavior is not about language (Skinner, 1957, 1974). It's about the 'behavior of the speaker". Language he says, "refers to the practices of the linguistic community" which he says, has become remote from the behavior of speakers (if that even makes sense?). His analysis of the "behavior of individual speakers" informs popular autism intervention approaches. In particular, Applied Verbal Behavior, aka, Verbal Behavior.


The goals of "verbal behavior" intervention:


> That 'learners' accumulate, hundreds of thousands of verbal operants (verbal units) i.e., mands, tacts, intraverbals, etc. (Partington, 1999).


> That 'learners' learn to emit sounds which are 'evoked' by controlling verbal or nonverbal antecedent stimuli. Thus, the verbal antecedent "Hi", evokes a learned response, "Hi", or "Hello". Informed by behavioral philosophy, AVB stands on the proposition that all verbal responses are learned and controlled by antecedent stimuli. These antecedent stimuli, bound up with reinforcement, determine the utterances which follow from them. But you may ask, how can there be so many learned 'responses' to the same controlling antecedent stimulus? The number of possible responses to the same antecedent is indefinite. How can that be. Good question. Let's consider an example and the behavior analysts' explanation for such phenomena.

"Response generalization"; a failed explanatory effort


In response to the antecedent verbal stimulus "Hello", an indefinite number of responses may be observed in daily practice. Response could include, "Where have you been?", "How was your vacation?", "Glad you are feeling better", "I've missed you so much". All are appropriate. In the 'science' of ABA, this variability is accounted for by "response generalization". Invoking 'science' provides the aura of something unimpeachable and scares many into's science after all. But, let's drill down, just a little bit, and consider the applicability of this bedrock principle in behavior analysis to account for how it is possible to have many different verbal responses 'controlled' by the same antecedent stimulus. This explanatory effort quickly hits a wall.


First, there is sharp disagreement about what is meant by 'response generalization'  For this reason alone, the explanatory power of the invoked principle becomes unsure. After all, what is being invoked? 


Second, even when considering each 'definition' of response generalization, perfunctory counter-examples nullify the explanatory power of each. Thus, one definition requires that responses be similar to each other. But we can plainly see in the examples above that none resemble each other...they are not similar.  Another definition argues that stimulus equivalents are at play. Yet, none of the statements above are interchangeable in the way that dog, pooch or canine are held up as examples within a stimulus equivalence framework. A third definition holds that in order to say that there is response generalization, functional equivalence is operating (Escape, automatic reinforcement, attention?).  But what, pray tell, in all the examples above would reveal the same function, let alone any 'function' in the sense associated with applied behavior analysis. And, a forth definition requires that response classes are shared. But all of the responses offered above fall into the response class of  "intraverbals". What does that add to our understanding and what does this explain? Clearly, it adds nothing.

Third, and most important, invoking science to account for an ethnological phenomenon, in this case a linguistic practice, mixes conceptual schemes. It just leads to incoherent attempts at explanation. It's like trying to explain the game of baseball in terms of the game of checkers or football. Language is not reducible to science just as the game of baseball is not reducible to football. As Skinner says, it's a practice. No one denies this, but yet the langauge and verbal behavior are often conflated. Just consider the ABLLs (Assessment of basic language and learning skills). It's not a language assessment. It's an assessment of verbal operants. Language and Verbal Behavior are technically different, each are informed by different conceptual schemes. This should not be confused. If language is the goal, subscribing to an AVB approach is misdirected.

Forth, these explanations attempt to solve a problem that does not exist.

The goals of learning a language:


> That children learn a linguistic practice such that any number of appropriate responses within the practice are suitable given the circumstances. That they learn a myriad of language games. In the above example, a greeting "Hi", does not 'control' "Hi" or some other learned and 'determined' response. Responses within a linguistic practice are indeterminate but many are appropriate within circumstance, activity, history and context. As illustrated in the case of a greeting such as "Hi", the proposition that all verbal responses are learned, reinforced and controlled by the antecedent stimulus is simply preposterous. 

> That children learn to do things with words...e.g., to direct, to promise, refute, cajole, ask, invite, tell, warn, confirm, etc. Using language has a point.


> That children learn to use symbols (words, gesture) - according to the normative rules for their use; They learn the meaning of words and gestures and their place in the web of words.

> Since language is a part of activity, it is critical that children learn to build things, search for things/people, make things, use tools etc. in order to learn the language which is part of any given activity. In doing so, not only are new concepts systemically and practically acquired, but previously acquired terms are put into play, and considerations related to developing attention dexterity, social awareness, social acuity, executive function, memory and recall, intention, etc. can be addressed.

Let's  be clear


> Accumulating verbal operants is not to do anything with words (to make a promise, to praise, to congratulate, refuse, refute, etc.) Verbal operants do not have a point. Verbal responses within a verbal behavior conceptual system is not to use symbols according to the rules for their use and is not directed toward teaching what it takes to participate in a social practice. Having 'verbal operants' is not about learning the kinds appropriate moves participants make in language games within a linguistic practice i.e., in greeting games, in 'negotiating' games, in 'invitation' games, in 'where' asking/answering games, 'why' asking/answering games, etc.


> Verbal Behavior, as a conceptual system, is an attempt to account for the behavior of the speaker in terms of operant /controlling relations (Skinner, 1957, p.2). This system is rooted in a deterministic philosophical framework- Behaviorism.


> It must be pointed out that the use of behavioral tools, procedures, strategies etc. need to be used for effective autism intervention. But, using these tools does not compel, nor should it require that practitioners subscribe to an AVB intervention approach or to behavioral philosophy (to which AVB adheres). 

> The implications of adherence to AVB are far reaching.  Since verbal behavior is not about language, subscribing to a VB intervention paradigm denies children the benefits of language; being able to opine, reflect, ruminate, to think about the past or future, to perform logical operations that are linguistically mediated, to give reasons etc. "Verbal behavior" does not prepare children to participate in language practices, to learn the varied practice forms in language, the language games played and the kinds of moves participants might make in those games. As a conceptual system, these are not the intended outcomes of AVB, nor are they hoped for outcomes...amassing verbal operants is.

> In order to ensure that language is addressed within an early intensive behavioral intervention framework, it's necessary to employ an ordinary language framework... the benefits are demonstrated in the groundbreaking work of Dr. Lovaas and his colleagues and others who did not subscribe to an AVB framework.  An ordinary language approach sets as its goals the things we do in language...anything else including manding, tacting or intraverbaling is superfluous and adds nothing but arcane, incoherent explanatory efforts and jargon.

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