What we mean by language
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. Our job is simply to clarify the ways terms are used and how they can be taught. This is what informs an 'ordinary language' approach to intervention.
This is a fundamentally different conceptual framework than the current and popular 'Verbal Behavior' approach with it's concomitant commitment to teaching mands, tacts, echoics, autoclitics and intraverbals.Teaching language within an Early Intensive Behavior Intervention framework employs behavioral tools, procedures, strategies and techniques and when applied expertly and appropriately, leads to effective, comprehensive and efficient learning. The best long term outcome studies demonstrate this. No Applied Verbal Behavior (AVB) required. In fact, no long term studies comparing AVB to those better known studies have been done. And since AVB is not about language, as we will see, mastery of a language necessarily occurs outside the constraints of such popular conceptual approaches which insist on the accumulation of tacts, mands, intraverbals, etc
What we know about language is not found in theories
The conceptual system for teaching children a language, whether children with autism or not, is not found in theories but rather, to learn a language is to learn a 'way of life'... such that we are socialized into a certain way of being, that we learn how to do such things as making claims, raising questions, conducting arguments, sensing disagreements, recognizing agreements, and so on (Shotter, 1984). Our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles etc. showed us, guided us in learning to do and recognize these kinds of things...not to tact, mand or intra-verbal. They didn't ask us how many intraverbals we engaged in during school but whether we told or asked our teacher something, whether we lied to Johnny, promised Suzy, reminded Billy or invited Harry. They taught us the words that express the concepts that live under words; "ball", 'car", "when", "why", "thinking", "wishing", "hoping" etc. They taught use how to use them; they taught us their meanings.
Our job as interventionists is similar. We guide by first providing training in the rudimentary constituents of a language. But then, rather than 'wait' for circumstances which might offer opportunities to teach what might be said, we must contrive situations and circumstances and introduce activities which allow for pointed practice and guidance around particular circumstances in which appropriate linguistic forms and accompanying words can be used... according to convention. As a result, children are introduced to and subsequently learn to recognize patterns of activity in which it is appropriate to use particular linguistic forms and words. It must be stressed early in this discussion, the kinds of things we might say across circumstances are not "fixed", not specified and not 'determined', as behavioral theory/ philosophy insists.
Learning a language is much like learning to play chess. When learning to play chess, first, one learns the names of the pieces (Simply knowing the names of things e.g. 'tacting' is to do nothing in a chess game or in language). Then one learns the rules for how pieces move. Then players learn to recognize rudimentary patterns of activity and basic moves in response, and later to recognize more complex patterns and more sophisticated technique. (For more on this, readers are encouraged to read about a Wittgensteinian approach to language by first reading anything by Baker and Hacker, PMS Hacker or Anthony Kenny.)The pieces in chess are used as tools and operate according to rules for their use...and they are used for different purposes. A pawn may block, take other pieces, be sacrificed etc. Technique is employed in the game as need arises. Mastery of technique with pawns, will help win or lose a game. Similarly, words and sentences can be seen as tools that can be used to different effect in different circumstances...to appease, cajole, tell etc.
The premise of VB has nothing to do with learning a language
Verbal behavior is concerned with behavior. Language is not behavior. We don't language. Language does not have frequency, duration or intensity. Behavior does. Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior is not an analysis of language...but of behavior; the behavior of speakers. It is a theory which attempts to account for the controlling variables which result in the behavior of uttering sounds in the presence of other sounds or things. The 'response' and its controlling antecedent stimuli and reinforcing events are under investigation. The 'response' is the goal in applied verbal behavior, i.e, to accumulate them. Not to act in any way other than to utter responses. Formats for teaching and accumulating responses vary.
One popular format is intra-verbal webbing. Here is an example:
Teacher: "What is something you bounce?"Child: "You bounce a ball"
Teacher: "What is something you kick?"Child: "You kick a ball"
Teacher: "What is something that is round?"Child: "A ball is round"
These are the kinds of operant units taught in 'intraverbal webbing'. The VB units above are designed to produce the response "ball". But this effort fails to consider what it takes to get children to learn what words mean (how they are used). Word meaning, the appropriate use and response to words is central to learning a language. In the cases above, the point of language learning is lost. Language learning needs to consider the meaning of the words, 'kick', 'round', 'bounce', 'you', 'what', etc. so that, for example, children learn to say what they are kicking, that they learn to kick what they are told to kick, to answer questions related to what they or others are doing, i.e., that children learn to use and respond to words appropriately according to the rules for their use.
In VB, the meaning of the words "bounce, kick, round, you, etc. are relegated to the static realm of antecedent stimuli. In fact, in behavior analytic terms, Moore, (2002) states that word meaning for the listener "is to be found to the extent to which an utterance enters into contingencies affecting the listener’s behavior. The most common way for the utterance to affect the listener’s behavior is to function as a discriminitive stimulus". This means that the meaning of the word "ball" is the question, "Tell me something round". So the meaning of the word sun, tire, face, globe, bubble, coin, ferris wheel is "something that is round? A coin, a face, bubbles, tires, globes, suns, are all the same thing because they are all round. "Really?" And, a football or rugby ball are not round. Does this mean they not balls? This is just absurd and misguided.
But as English speakers, we know the meaning of the words, coin, sun, bubbles, face as demonstrated in our ability to use and respond to them. This is not confusing for us. We also know that if these words had the same meaning, we would be able to use them interchangeably. So we could say, "Give me that sun", when asking for a coin. But we don't do that. Because we know what they mean.
What does "intra-verbal webbing" actually teach children about the meanings of words they hear or say? Nothing. But, in order to participate in a linguistic practice, learning word meaning is essential. Learning how to use and respond to words... is to use the word appropriately in the web of words. Thus, when asked, 'What is something you kick?', appropriate responses might include 'a door', 'your brother', 'the wall'. (In 'behaviorism world, the meaning of "wall", "brother" or "door" is 'something you kick.)
Knowing if someone undestands the meaning of a word is manifest in appropriate use and response to a word. If a person said that we, "kick a can down the road", "kick ideas around", kick up our heels, "kick someone out of a game", "kick a habit","kick a dead horse", or 'I get a kick out of you", this would be further evidence of their understanding of the use of the word; that they know what the word means. Moreover, these phrases in which the word 'kick' is present are used for different purposes, and uses eventually need to be considered in efforts within comprehensive language instruction.
This goes for all words. The word "round" is used in saying things like, 'round' off, 'round' up (to the highest number or horses), 'round' out, to sing in round, etc. You see... words in the web of words...mastery of technique for use is to learn a words meaning.
So again, what is the point of these intra-verbal exercises? They do nothing to account for the rich uses found in our practice. This empty and unconsidered effort and has nothing to do with language instruction. The goals in VB miss the point of language instruction. It fails to consider that things we say have a point and are not simply accounted for and understood in terms of evoked responses controlled by antecedent stimuli. The effort fails to consider a words place in language and efforts directed toward mastery of word use / technique.
Goals for language instruction; to do things with words/ not simply to accumulate 'responses'
In an ordinary language approach to teaching, rudimentary word meaning is acquired. The meaning of the word 'ball' will not be acquired simply by asking things like, "Tell me something that is round", but requires bringing/finding/searching for a ball, considering possession or placement of a ball, throwing, kicking, rolling, squeezing a ball as as well as accounting for one's activities with a ball, e.g, "Mommy just kicked the ball in the net", "the ball went into the hole". This is no easy task. But, once these rudiments are in place, words can be integrated within countless other kinds of activities.
Thus, below we see how the word 'ball' might come into play within circumstances which arise.
Sally: "Why do we always have to use my balls?" (Game: Complaint? Request? Bid for explanation?) Johnny: "I promise to bring the balls to our next game" (Move: Mollify, promise)
Sally: "Your ball hit the net, again." (Game: Assertion? Accusation?, Cajoling?) Johnny: "It did not. My serves are always perfect.". (Move: Playful retort, Refutation)
Sally: "Call Johnny and ask if we can use his balls please" (Game: Command, Request )Johnny: "You call him" (Move: Refusal)
The examples above illustrate activities of complaining, asserting, joking, commanding. They all contain the word ball. The word "ball" is simply put into play as a part of the various language games, but the use of the term is not the point of the game itself. It is not clear how 'webbing' will lead to learning to do things with words or what words mean. (But 'webbing' does result in nice graphs.)
More on word meaning
The examples above illustrate kinds of language games in which the use of 'ball' (the thing used in games) is integrated into activities such as promising, complaining, accusing etc. But such examples only touch on one use of the word and do not account for the different uses of the word. We say that someone knows the meaning of a word when they use it and respond to it appropriately. Appropriate use is determined by norms for their use. A nice illustration of how convention determines meaning is seen in how the same word may have numerous meanings. Let's consider what actually occurs in language.
Take the word 'ball' . We use the word "ball' to refer to something we play with, to refer to an event (a formal affair) or to describe our experience . There are other uses as well. If I say, "I had a ball", determining if this utterance is a 'tact', 'mand' or 'intraverbal' tells us nothing about this statement's place in language; its meaning or how and when to use it and how to respond to its use. Nor does it matter if there is "joint control" or if an utterance is a "pure tact", an intraverbal, a "magical" or "a defective mand"?
These categories of operants have nothing to do with the use of a word or sentence; with its meaning. If someone asked, "How was the party?" and the answer given is, "I had a ball", it's use here means, "I had a great time". Even though this utterance may be classified as an 'intraverbal', it is of no consequence. If it is determined there is multiple causation, so what? It is use we need to teach children...to use words appropriately under the appropriate circumstance and to how to do things with words. Most other considerations are pointlessly academic, misguided and pedantic.
A ordinary language approach alerts us of the need to consider that words (the same word/symbol) often have multiple uses. It would be our job to see that children learn the circumstances, transactions, situations in which appropriate use comes into play. And it must be restated, these differences in use reflect norms for use. Not generalization and not science.
It's all about "Use"
I can't let go of this because it goes to the heart of language. It is so elegant and helpful. Moreover, it eliminates the need to sit through painfully obtuse, incomprehensible power point presentations that offer fantastical analysis but little guidance. In a VB analysis offered by Vince Carbone, which included a 90 slide 'analysis' of "yes" and "no (once available online, but now offered for CEUs in some other interation), his 'verbal analysis' lead to the conclusion that, "The behavior of saying 'no' was brought under the discriminative stimulus control of tacting the absence of joint control".I have no idea what this means. How do you tact something that is not there? And, even if it were possible (which it's not giving the definition of 'tact'), wouldn't the ability to tact the absence of something first require an ability to tact it? Does this mean that children who utter 'no' are able to tact 'joint control'? More important is the question, "How is this analysis helpful to those trying to teach children about how to use and respond to the word 'no'.
How does this analysis guide and inform teaching. If we want children to learn about the word 'no', all we need to do is teach children how to use it. We all know that it is used to refuse, reject, warn, refute, to disallow etc. And if any analysis is needed it's not of the VB kind. It's simpler: It's to ask what is involved on a practical level. Concerning the use of "no"is not about joint control , but rather it's to recognize that what sits behind the use of yes/no is 'correspondence'. E.g., It is to ask, for example, if there is correspondence between one's desire and what is offered, i.e., do you want a cookie?, (Yes, I do want a cookie) "Please clean your room" (I don't want to) or if there correspondence between facts, e.g., Is a ball an animal, or "Did you go to the store?" No convoluted VB analysis is necessary. All we have to concern ourselves with when teaching a children to use 'no' is to ensure that constituent abilities are in place and to contrive arrangements (along with rigorous practice) in order to get appropriate use in play under the appropriate circumstances.
Saying that Verbal Behavior is language misleads
Setting goals for language instruction simply requires that we account for what we do in language and then teach to those goals. This requires description. But, goals within an AVB program, as informed by Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior, are different. The goal is to 'acquire responses'; to automatically emit words (sounds) 'controlled' by stimuli across various response classes. To say that Applied Verbal Behavior is "language intervention" (Sundberg and Partington, 1998; 2010; Partington, 2010) is simply wrong and misleads. No amount of analysis about 'what kind' of verbal operant something "is" will inform what needs to be done when teaching language. In language there is point in doing something with words - whether it be to assert something, to refute something, to negotiate, etc. within the activity. Operating within a VB paradigm misses the point that we do things with words; that what we do with words has a point. However, operating within a VB paradigm does inform which verbal operants children will be directed to memorize.
Drilling down a bit more: 'Language' vs. Verbal Behavior
Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior is very popular. It is a conceptual system which, by its theoretical underpinnings, is deterministic...and which sets out to achieve 'prediction and control'. Verbal responses are said to be determined by controlling relations; joint, multiple or otherwise. Thus, verbal responses are automatically 'emitted or evoked' in the presence of 'controlling' antecedent stimuli in whose presence they've been reinforced. Within 'verbal behavior' based intervention, hefty lists of "verbal operants" (according to response class) are accumulated and graphed. Graphs with upward trends allow for the conclusion, "Children are learning".
Within this system, children do learn. This is not in question. However, what children learn in VB intervention is not language, but rather to emit automatic"responses". "Having responses" has nothing to do with one's ability to do things with words... (greet, report, invite, direct, refute, etc.) "Having verbal responses" says nothing about being able to recognize patterns of activity in which certain moves are appropriate or learn how to use words/their meanings.
By the way, if there is any question about the goal of AVB, leading figures within the VB community suggest that adult speakers 'have' upwards of four hundred thousand (Sundberg and Partington, 1998) units of verbal behavior. It is not clear how this number was derived but, it certainly was not by science. Nevertheless, 'number of responses' is what drives AVB ; the more that can be taught, the better.
To make moves within myriad language games is to learn language
Let's switch gears for a moment. Put aside needing to ensure that children learn 400,000 (400,001?, 247,629?, or 349,326?) responses... let's consider something less overwhelming...something more prosaic...for example, 'greetings'. Everyone understands what a greeting is. Within a VB paradigm, "Hi" is said to evoke "Hello" (or some other learned response) in another speaker. Thus, in VB, the "Hi", controls the response "Hello". But, in language, there are any number of appropriate things someone may say within the activity, in this game. We see this every day. Instead of "hello" someone might respond, "Where've you been?", "I'm glad you're feeling better","How's your Mother?", "I'm so happy to see you again", "Sorry I'm late", "I love your skirt", "You won't believe what just happened to me on my way here!"or say nothing at all and just greet by kissing, hugging, shaking hands, smiling warmly, snarling, etc. Any such moves would be appropriate within a greeting activity within our culture as a part of our linguistic practice. No further explanation is required. No circuitous, tautological and impenetrable 'analysis' required.
But, in a Verbal Behavior paradigm, the possible responses in the presence of "Hi" assumes that someone would have to have 'learned' that when they hear "Hi", they are to emit, "Hello", "I love your new hair style", "I'm glad you're feeling better" or "You won't believe what just happened to me on my way here!"etc. While all of these 'responses' may be controlled by "Hi" (taught to be emitted in the presence of "Hi"), not all of them make sense in the presence of "Hi" all the time. But, there is no such thing as making 'sense' in VB; only verbal operants (relations). As such, responses are devoid of sense and have no place in 'language' as they do in an ordinary language paradigm. There are only controlling events and what is 'to be' emitted in their presence. It can't be any other way within a VB calculus. Verbal responses, the things that are to be emitted are a function of operant learning! What are the implications of such a worldview?
Everything ever said has been learned/ and is under stimulus control
Every utterance in every interview, debate, argument...all learned...and maintained by 'histories reinforcement'. Every utterance in every discussion or conversation you've ever had...all learned and 'controlled'. Any wish wished, every plea pleaded, every promise made. Learned. Reinforced. Every word uttered in every game ever played. All learned. All utterances persons 'emit' are emitted because of the presence of controlling stimuli. There would be no 'weighing what we say', no or 'formulating responses". It is on this proposition that 'verbal behavior' (and necessarily, AVB) stands.
To say that this is the foundation of a science called to account for all of what we say is a hard sell. I wonder about the feasibility of performing an analysis of the verbal behavior of the utterances on this page. Is what is written before you an "intraverbal"', "tact", or "mand"? Is there joint control? What are the controlling stimuli? What 'verbal unit' can you identify? Is it even a meaningful question?
Adopting this world view requires that one accept that the words on this page are things I learned' to emit in presence of some controlling stimulus and maintained by histories of reinforcement. Do readers believe it is possible to trace events leading up to these words "emitted" in relation to some specific antecedent evoking them? or to identify the controlling variables! It seems unlikely. It seems unverifiable. Yet verify-ability is the bedrock of science. What does this mean concerning Skinner's theory of 'why we say what we say'... his analysis of verbal behavior?
And still, many today might ask, "Do you have evidence for what you say?" Where are your data? But, I argue, what I say doesn't call for 'data'. What I say is part of a linguistic practice. Investigating a linguistic practice is an anthropological endeavor and does not lend itself to scientific investigation. Actually, the burden of proof is on the verbal behaviorist. Invoking vague 'histories of reinforcement', unverifiable histories of learning and questionable "stimulus control" is not a compelling scientific argument. What does this say about "The Science"? (Readers are encouraged to read Chomsky's critique of Skinner's VB. One doesn't have to subscribe to Chomskian linguistics in order to recognize the merits of his critique.)
"The 'verbal behavior' of the person producing the 'verbal antecedent'?
Let's revisit greetings. In the case cited earlier, the topic under discussion was a speaker's response to the verbal antecedent, "Hi". But efforts to chase down the 'controlling stimuli' related to the utterance of the person initiating "Hi", is left open. What exactly produces the initiating greeter's "Hi". Why doesn't the initiating greeter emit 'tacts', so that rather than saying "Hi", the greeter says something like, "Red hat", "Pants" or "Man" in response to the person standing in front of them? But why "Hi"? I'm sure the experts in the academy will be able to offer some lengthy verbal behavior analysis for what controls someone saying, "Hi" e.g., It's a mand... which is to say the initiating person is "Manding" for "hello"which reflects a state of deprivation of "hellos"... assuming that there is equivalence between "Hi" and "Hello". This is all rather silly but not an unlikely 'analysis'. A more parsimonious explanation is that the initiating statement, "Hi" is part of a practice... a social / linguistic practice. It's simply something we may do (say) in our culture under these circumstances. No explanation needed.
Response generalization; Attempting to account for how it is possible to have varied responses to the same 'controlling antecedent'.
Proclamations of 'response generalization' are a common fall back position when attempting to explain how we come to say so many different things in the presence of the same stimuli. I can't tell you how many times I hear professionals exclaim, "Oh... that's response generalization". But, oddly enough, there is little agreement about what is meant by 'response generalization'. Some definitions require that responses be similar to each other. Others argue that stimulus equivalents are at play. Still, others argue that in order to say that there is response generalization, functional equivalence is operating or it requires that response classes are shared.