Language: No Theory Required

To learn a language is to learn the activities, practices, actions and reactions within characteristic contexts in which the rule governed use of words are integrated (Hacker, 2003). It is to do things with words such as asking, telling, naming, directing, promising, describing, explaining, cajoling, negotiating, refuting, refusing, agreeing, correcting, teasing, tattling, inviting, etc. To learn a language is to learn to manipulate symbols (words, gesture) according to the conventions for their use; to learn their meaning. Having a language grants many benefits: to be able to reason, deliberate, to talk about our pasts and futures, hopes, wishes, disappointments and joys, etc. It only makes sense that the goals within a language-based intervention program be those things we do in language. This is what informs an 'ordinary language' approach to intervention.


Conceptual Systems


The conceptual system for teaching children a language, whether children with autism or not, is not found in theories. What is done in language is a part of a cultural practice and, as such is best understood as an ethnological phenomenon and accounted for descriptively and historically. Practices are not accounted for in theory.


Theories are a part of science. Science constructs theories which enable us to predict and explain events. But any "scientific" attempt to account for what we say, such as Verbal Behavior or Relational Frame Theory are misdirected. Do you think its possible to predict or explain, based on a scientific theory, what or why someone might say when asked "Why did you go upstairs?". The possibilities are almost limitless and could include, "I forgot something", "To watch TV", "Mom told me to", "To get ice cream", "To wash my hands", "I'm tired", "I heard the baby". What in science would allow us to predict or explain such a variety of utterances? Behavior analysis suggests 'response generalization' accounts for such variability.


Response Generalization; the fall back explanation


Response generalization attempts to account for variability in responding to the same stimulus. But let's take a look at how this principle holds up under casual scrutiny in terms of the examples above.


First, there are a number of explanations for what is occurring (Skinner, 1953, Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, and Wallace, 2011, Carr, 1988) when response generalization is operating. For this reason alone, the explanatory and predicative power of the principle is unsure. After all, what is being invoked?  And, when looking at each 'explanation' of response generalization, perfunctory counter-examples nullify the explanatory power of each. Thus, one explanation requires that responses be similar to each other. But, in what way are any of the responses above similar to each other? A cursory view of each of the 'responses' reveals no similarities; no English speaker would say that any of the reasons above are similar. Another explanation 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 response generalization is a function of 'functional equivalence'. But what, pray tell, in all the examples above would reveal the same function? How would such an analysis been done?  And, a forth definition holds that response classes are shared. But since all of the responses above are intraverbals... what does this add to our understanding of variability within a scientific framework? What predicative power does saying this have? Thus, it seems, that the case of invoking response generalization to account for occurrences in language miss the mark entirely. Such efforts which use 'scientific' principles in order to explain what occurs in language are misplaced.

Additionally, we see that when science is invoked to explain things that occur in language, i.e., outside of science, confusion and nonsense result. For example, Carbon says that the reason we say 'no' is 'because speakers are tacting joint control'; this is simply incoherent. Language users already know that we use the word 'no' to refuse, reject, refute, alert etc. Our practice reveals this. No explanation is required. Or when Moore says that meaning of word is found in the discriminative stimulus, we have to ask, if the meaning of the word "ball" is, "What is something that is round?", does that mean that a rugby ball or football are not balls?. This is nonsense, but this is what happens when behavior analysis is used to account for things which are not behavior.

Our linguistic practice is not predicated on science or controlling events. How to operate is a linguistic practice is conveyed by experts in the practice... those using the language. Thus, our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles etc. showed us, guided us in learning to do the kinds of things we do in our practice...they didn't teach tacting, manding or intra-verbaling. They didn't ask us how many intraverbals, tacts or mands we 'had' while at soccer practice, but 'asked' whether we 'told' our coach something, whether we 'lied' to Johnny, 'promised' Suzy, 'reminded' Billy, or 'invited' Harry. They taught us how to make appropriate moves in language. These are the kinds of 'targets' which need to be considered for language instruction.


The 'Science" does not support the science"


While teaching language within an Early Intensive Behavior Intervention (EIBI) framework employs behavioral tools, procedures, strategies and techniques, a theory of language is not required.

The best long term outcome studies demonstrate this (Lovaas, 1987, Eldevik, S., Hastings, R.P., Hughes, J.C., Jahr, E., Eikeseth, S., & Cross, S. 2010, Smith, T., Green, A., & Wynn, J. 2000, McEachin, J. J., Smith, T., & Lovaas, O. I. 1993, Howard, Jane S. , Sparkman, Coleen R., Cohen, Howard G., Green, Gina, & Stanislaw, Harold, 2005). Applied Verbal Behavior (AVB) was not employed in those studies but the use of applied behavior analysis was. In fact, there are no studies comparing the use of AVB to methods used in the groundbreaking studies demonstrating the benefits of EIBI. There is no science... there are no outcome studies on the scale of those cited above which demonstrate the benefits of VB or Relational Frame Theory in helping children to become language users.


Language. Not behavior.


Proponents of Applied Verbal Behavior argue that Skinner's Verbal Behavior should be employed because it is "behavioral" (Sundberg and Partington, 1998). However, simply because something is "behavioral" does not make it better, scientific or appropriate. And despite claims within the behavior analytic community (e.g., Sidener, 2010), that language is behavior, it is not. Uttering a statement is behavior, but that which is said is not. Making a promise is behavior, but the promise is not. It is something we've done with words. And while behavior has duration, intensity and frequency, a promise endures long after the behavior of saying it.


A promise is a technique... To learn a language is to learn technique. But, we don't have theories or science to account for technique. Our job as interventionist is to teach technique; to teach language. VB is not language. No technique is acquired.

It takes a great deal of time, training and careful engineering for a child to begin to master a linguistic practice. We need to clarify the ways expressions are used under which circumstances and then find ways to teach accordingly. We must identify constituents of language which first need to be drilled before training in the practice can begin. Children need to learn the names of things, to acquire concepts (ask, tell, before, after, quantitative concepts, pronouns, attributes etc.) and to recognize basic patterns of activity (negotiation, cajoling, refuting etc.) in which words are put into play. Behavioral strategies and tools are invaluable in this effort e.g., shaping, discrete trial instruction, task analysis, etc. But, no theory of language will enhance our ability to teach children to be "language users".