An Inconvenient Truth

 

Language and 'Verbal Behavior' are not the same thing

 

Skinner's Analysis of Verbal Behavior is not about language (Skinner, 1957 p.2). It's about the 'behavior of the speaker", from which language "has become remote". Language he says, "refers to the practices of the linguistic community". His analysis of the "behavior of individual speakers", informs popular autism intervention approaches.

 

The goals of "verbal behavior" intervention:

 

> That learners accumulate, hundreds of thousands of verbal operants such as 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, fixed and determined.

 

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. For example, a greeting "Hi", does not 'control' "Hi" or some other learned and 'determined' response. Responses within a linguistic practice are indeterminate but are appropriate according to circumstance, activity, history and context. In the case of a greeting such as "Hi", someone might say, "I've been waiting an hour", "You look great", "Sorry I'm late", "Feeling better?", etc. The proposition that all verbal responses are learned/ reinforced and thus fixed and determined is preposterous. 

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

 

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

>That children learn to do things and not simply to accumulate verbal operants. 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.) It's 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 of indefinite but 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 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. These intervention systems do not prepare children to participate in language practices, the language games played and the kinds of moves participants might make in those games. As a conceptual system, these are not 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... such as demonstrated in the groundbreaking work of Dr. Lovaas and his colleagues.  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 confusion and an arcane, impenetrable taxonomy.