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. This is what informs a natural language approach to intervention. This is a fundamentally different conceptual framework than the current and popular Stimulus-Response /Operant/ Verbal Behavior approach. At Nexus, we teach language within an Early Intensive Behavior Intervention framework. Behavioral tools, procedures, strategies and techniques are applied expertly and appropriately, leading to effective, comprehensive and efficient learning. Mastery of a language necessarily occurs outside the constraints of popular conceptual approaches.
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 these kinds of things...not to tact, mand or intra-verbal. 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 (done with words under those circumstances) 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.

Teaching 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 lanaguage). 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 may be used for different purposes. A pawn my 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.

Goals for language instruction; to do things with words/ not to 'have responses'

In VB training children learn to automatically "emit"responses in the presence of controlling stimuli so it can be said 'children have responses'.
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 utterances taught in 'intraverbal webbing' in efforts to 'generalize' terms such as 'ball'. The goal is to have as many 'intraverbals' as possible with the hope is that with enough intraverbals, generalization will occur. (As we will see later, the principle of response generalization, the intended outcome of 'intraverbal webbing', is specious, at best.). These 'responses' are often taught out of context and furthermore, unless you're in a VB program, these kinds of utterances would find little place discourse.

On the other hand, in a language practice, these are some of the kinds of things we hear people say: Things that people do with words and patterns in which technique is applied.
Sally: "Why do we always have to use my balls?" (Pattern: Complaint? Request? Bid for explanation?)
Johnny: "I promise to bring the balls to our next game" (Technique: Mollify, promise)

Sally: "Your ball hit the net, again." (Pattern: Assertion? Accusation?, Cajoling?)
Johnny: "It did not. My serves are always perfect.". (Technique: Playful retort, Refutation)
Sally: "Call Johnny and ask if we can use his balls please" (Pattern: Command, Request )
Johnny: "You call him" (Technique: Refusal)

The examples above illustrate activities of complaining, asserting, joking, commanding. There are no absolutes in language. No controlling relations, just moves. Sally's intentions may not always be evident (just like in chess). It is up to Johnny to counter her move (as in chess). That is what we do in language. We learn to recognize patterns of activity (i.e., complaints, assertions, jokes) and employ technique in response (refusals, playful retorts, refutations, promises). The words, ball, round, kicking are simply put into play as a part of the activity, but the use of the terms is not the point of the activity itself. It is not clear how 'webbing' will lead to learning to do things with words or what words mean unless the words are put into use. (But 'webbing' does result in nice graphs.)
Goal: To learn the meanings of words

A word's meaning is revealed in use. 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 conventions determine 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 and when 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 or place in language. 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". 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...doing things with words. Most other considerations are pointlessly academic.

A natural language approach alerts us of the need to consider that words (the same word/symbol) often have multiple uses. 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 one VB analysis offered by Carbone and following a 90 slide 'analysis' of "yes" and "no"the conclusion concerning 'no' from this analysis is stated thus: "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 attention'. But, I digress. More important is the question, "How is this analysis helpful to those trying to teach children about 'no'. How does this analysis guide and inform our teaching. If we want children to learn about the word 'no', all we need to do is to teach children how to use it.  We all know that it is used to refuse, reject, 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. It's not about joint attention (although in some cases joint attention may be required), but rather it's to recognize that what sits behind the use of yes/no is a correspondence in matching. E.g., It is to ask if there is correspondence between one's desire and what is offered, i.e., do you want a cookie? 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 understanding 'no' is its use and constituent abilities in matching and what it would take to help youngsters learn to ascribe the terms to appropriate situations.

Saying that VB 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. Thus, in language instruction, children learn how to use and respond appropriately to words according to normative practice. But, goals within an AVB program, as informed by Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior, are different. The goal for intervention within AVB 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.

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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 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 'number of responses' is what drives AVB ; the more that can be taught, the better. 


Language is a part of activity

Let's switch gears for a moment.  Put aside needing to ensure that children learn 400,000  (400,001?, 347,629? or 249,326?) responses... let's consider something less overwhelming...something more prosaic...for example, 'greetings'. Everyone understands what a greeting is, although in VB parlance, the goal would be the acquisition of an 'intraverbal'. The activity of greeting someone involves using words, gestures, facial expression etc. As part of this activity, someone initiates a greeting and may say, "Hi". Within a VB paradigm, this "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...when someone says "Hi" to someone else. 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 presence of any of many possible responses in the presence of "Hi" assumes that someone would have to have 'learned' that when they hear "Hi", they are to say, "I love your new hair style" or "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", not all of them would make sense in the presence of "Hi" all the time. But, there is no such thing as making 'sense' in VB. Responses are devoid of knowledge, compassion, empathy, intention, etc. (But people aren't.) 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, things that are to be said,  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 vague '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 things persons 'are to say' are said because of the presence of controlling stimuli.  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 before you an "intraverbal"', "tact", or "mand"? Is there joint control? Is it even a useful question?


Adopting this world view requires that one accept that the words on this page are things 'I was to say', that I learned' to utter in presence of a controlling stimulus and maintained by histories of reinforcement. Do readers believe it is possible to trace events leading up to these words "evoked" in relation to some specific antecedent evoking them? Yet, here these words are. Considering the possible histories involved, to be able to say there are histories of reinforcement maintaining these utterances, also raises questions about being able to verify Skinner's theory of 'why we say what we say'. It's just not verifiable.


And still, many today will 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' and unverifiable histories of learning... is not a compelling scientific argument.  (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'? 

There is much about VB that leaves me scratching my head. 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.


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' (Skinner, 1953, Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, and Wallace, 2011, Carr, 1988). 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.  

With these 'definitions' in mind, consider the question, "Why did you go upstairs?" and the possible responses that could follow; "I like it there", "My boss told me to", "I forgot something", "To get ice cream", "To wash my hands", "To watch t.v.", "None of your business". How these and countless other possible responses might conform to what is considered to be 'response generalization'' as defined within ABA is difficult to reconcile, both because of the confusion about what the term means, and because, in language, regardless of the definition one adopts, it is difficult to see how response generalization applies.  Let's explore this briefly.


1. In order to say there is response generalization, responses need to be similar to each other: There is nothing similar in the responses above ("None of your business", "To get ice cream", "I forgot something",etc.) in the way we would apply the principle to situations such as when someone who learned to eat ice cream with a spoon, also learned, without direct instruction, to use a spoon to eat soup. One might argue that when learning the names of things we see response generalization. This is fine except that while learning names of things is a precondition for language... it is not to to do anything with words or to learn the rules for their use in language and does not qualify as language. Thus, when considering 'similarity' as a requirement for response generalization in langauge, this principle doesn't hold up well.

2. In order to say there is response generalization, stimulus equivalents are at play. I can't see what equivalence exists between the responses above. In none of the responses above could one be substituted for another and mean the same thing in the way that dog, canine and a pooch are held up as evidence for response generalization being a function of stimulus equivalence. The transitivity of A = B / B = C  A=C, makes no sense in the language samples above and this simplistic calculus has little extension in language.


3. In order to say there is response generalization, functional equivalence is at play Escape? Attention? Access to tangibles? Automatic reinforcement? It is possible that a functional analysis will reveal that any one of these statements might have any of one these functions? Surely.  But is it possible to say that same function would apply across all statements?

4. In order to say there is response generalization, responses need to be in the same response class. This would require an analysis of whether the utterances are intraverbals, mands, tacts etc. But, we already know,  all of the responses above are intraverbals. So... so what?  How does that add to our understanding of why we say so many different things in the presence of the same 'stimuli'.

As illustrated above, no matter how you apply it, the principle of response generalization, as applied to language, doesn't hold up well. Ultimately this principle fails because it is a principle used to account for behavior within a scientific framework. But, as stated earlier, to investigate language is an investigation of the practices of a verbal community...it's an anthropological endeavor.  Such practices are not reducible to science.  Any related scientific principles called to account for cultural phenomenon will be rendered useless. You can't explain cultural practices using science; you can only describe and historicize them.

Fuzzy is O.k. and fun

As we rule out the explanatory power of 'response generalization' as an account for how we come to say different things in the presence of 'controlling' antecedent stimuli...it seems, that within an VB world view, we are left only with the brute force of controlling antecedents. That means, each and every antecedent has a corresponding response...as adduced before.


But, when words and sentences are viewed as tools with which technique can be used to different effect... the need to learn 400,000 (?) operant units is negated. What a relief. Absurdity is put to rest. As humans, we are tool users... this applies in language as well. The ways in which tools and technique may be  be applied in language is inexact and fuzzy and does not lend itself to scientific investigation or explanation. Scientific passion in the case of language is misplaced. Language is messy... but if you just accept that it follows its own rules, it's actually fun. And,  you can say about the things we do in language, without needing to explain, that we do those things, "just because...that's how we, in our (linguistic) culture say it... that is how it's done".

Language instruction is more than accumulating verbal operants

Teaching children a language is not to teach children to automatically emit words (sounds)...that as language users that we 'are to say "x" when they hear or see "y". To be a language user, is to learn a practice or as Kenny says "A technique of language". To teach a language requires that we teach children to recognize patterns of activity and appropriate moves that can be made within those activities. This means teaching children how to do things with words and the meaning of words...how they are used according to convention. Finally, it requires early training in the rudiments and constituents of language and constructing intervention that is engineered toward progressive mastery of a technique of language.

Learning Language while Solving Problems 

With all of this in mind... there are a number of platforms we use to help get a language into place. An example of one platform we employ is our active learning platform. In an active learning platform, situations are contrived so that children learn to solve practical problems. This platform allows for teaching many things within the context of solving a ‘problem’... So that children also learn the names of things, the properties of the things , how precisely to use things, where to get the things they need should the problem come up again, to learn to ask for help as problems arise, to describe the problem, explain things, and to consider alternate solutions. Examples of how we do this are found in the ASAT article and our book.