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 a fundamentally different conceptual framework than the current and popular Stimulus-Response /Operant/ Verbal Behavior approach. At Nexus, we teach language.

At Nexus, children are taught, systematically, 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. Our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles etc. showed us, guided us - indoctrinated us in a cultural practice. They taught us how to do all kinds of things with words... to make promises, to ask, to describe, to provide directions, to tell, to invite, warn, assert, proclaim, negotiate, confirm, disagree, offer, refuse, etc.....not to tact, mand or intra-verbal. They helped us learn the rules for the use of words that are used to express the many concepts that are a part of our language such as "what", "where", "when", "how", "why", "car", "ball", "carry, "climb", "red", "three", etc. 


When we were children, our guides in learning a linguistic practice hadn't mastered a theory of language and didn't possess a masters degree in order to guide well...it required only their own mastery of the practice. Our job as interventionists is similar. Except in our case, rather than wait for situations or conditions to occur naturally so that we might guide children in what they might do/say within particular circumstances, we first need to provide training in the rudiments of a language and then contrive situations and introduce activities which allow for pointed practice and guidance around particular circumstances in which appropriate linguistic forms and accompanying words can be used... whose uses are determined by convention within the practice, not theory or science.

Goals for language instruction

While we can teach children to "emit" things like, "You bounce a ball", "You kick a ball", "You throw a ball", "A ball is round", (the kinds of utterances taught in 'intraverbal webbing') these kinds of utterances have little place in daily discourse. Rather, we say things like, "I promise to bring the ball to the next game", "We used my ball last time, it's your turn to bring the ball", "Call Johnny and ask if we can use his ball", "Tell him to bring three balls, just in case", "If the ball goes in the hole on the first shot, we call it a 'hole in one'. These are the kinds of things we do in language - we negotiate, direct, ask, tell, explain, etc., and put words in play within practice forms. These are the kinds of things said in daily discourse. It is not clear how 'webbing' will lead to learning to do these kinds of things with words. But 'webbing' does result in nice graphs.


Let's not forget, the same words (symbols)  have different uses...and thus different meanings. A "ball" can be something we play with, an event we attend or provide (a formal affair; "I went to a marvelous ball"; "I hosted a ball at the club"), or can be used to describe our experience ("I had a ball"). There are other uses as well. Science can't account for different uses and meanings...conventions do. If I say, "I had a ball", determining if this utterance is a 'tact', 'mand' or 'intraverbal' will not tell us anything about this statement's place in language; its meaning or how and when to use it. Language instruction absent these considerations is not language instruction at all. 

Does it matter if there is "joint control" or if an utterance is a "pure tact", a "magical" or "a defective mand"?  These categories of operants have nothing to do with use, meaning or language. In language, how a term is used determines its meaning. If someone asked, "How was the party?" and the answer given is, "I had a ball", the use of the term "ball", in this instance, is used to refer to one's experience and not to the fact that one was literally 'holding a ball' at a party. Though this utterance may be classified as an 'intraverbal', it is of no consequence. If it is determined there is multiple causation, so what? Our goals for instruction need to be informed by use. It is use we need to teach children. Most other considerations are pointlessly academic.


It also must be clarified... different uses of a term are not the result of "generalization" but of convention; the practices of the verbal community. In such instances, an analysis of verbal behavior is of little help.  An ordinary language approach alerts us of the need to consider that words (the same word/symbol) often have multiple uses. These differences in use occur in language according to convention. Not science. 


More on determining goals for language instruction

Setting goals for language instruction simply requires that we account for what we do in language through observation and description and then teach to those goals. What an utterance "is", as determined within the calculus of VB,  has nothing to do with what we do with words or how words are 'used ' in language.  Doing things with words, how words are used is the stuff of language. There is no getting around it and there is no calculus which might account for it. 


Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior is a separate conceptual system from language (Skinner, 1957 p.2). No amount of 'conceptual acrobatics' will align these systems.  Saying that language and VB are equivalent does not make them so.  They are not and no amount of analysis about what kind of verbal operant something "is" will inform what needs to be done when teaching language to a child with ASD. But it will inform which verbal operants children will be directed to acquire.

It takes a great deal of time, training and careful engineering for a child to begin to master a linguistic practice. There are constituents which need to be first acquired and elements which need to be learned even before training in the practice can begin. Just like when learning to play chess...first one learns the names of the pieces, then basic moves and eventually, to consider any number of possible moves. So too in learning a language.

It takes a great deal of time, training, practice and study for a practitioner to artfully construct an intervention program that will bring this all together for young persons with ASD; for those children who can't manage to do it without extraordinary assistance.

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Language and Skinner's Verbal Behavior:

They are not the same

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 '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".


This is not questioned. Children do learn to utter these kinds of responses.  They learn to emit verbal responses evoked in the presence of controlling stimuli (verbal or nonverbal) -  so we may say that "learners  (i.e., children) have responses" (verbal operants). This is all fine except for one thing, "Verbal Behavior", as set out within Operant/Skinnerian paradigm is not language. (You are urged to read Skinner, who on p.2 in Verbal Behavior distinguishes language from 'verbal behavior'). Nonetheless, proponents of 'verbal behavior' conflate 'verbal behavior' with language...ubiquitously. 

Language is not 'verbal behavior'

If Skinner's work was about language, why didn't he title his 1957 book, 'A applied behavior analytic approach to language'. But he didn't. Rather he offered a different conceptual scheme from language. "Language", he writes had become "remote from the behavior of the speaker". He was interested in the behavior of the speaker and sets out to account for the 'behavior of the speaker' in terms of operant relations. He never professed that language and VB are the same.

Proclaiming that they are the same misguides. AVB intervention is directed toward "having responses". But "having responses" is to do nothing with words...is not to make moves in language within a practice, is not to learn to use words according to the rules for their use. "Having responses", whether 10 or 100,000 has no relationship to linguistic ability, knowing how to use words.  "Having responses" has nothing to do with one's ability to do things with words... (greet, report, invite, direct, etc. ). "Having verbal operants" says nothing about being able to make moves in language.  Verbal behavior has nothing to do with language despite the confused proclamations of AVB advocates who somehow ignore Skinner's own designations.


Language is a part of activity

Let's take an example and consider what we do when meeting someone. A part of the activity of meeting someone involves using words, gestures, facial expression etc. As a part of this activity, someone may say, "Hi". But that "Hi", does not determine (predict or control) "Hello" in return. Any number of appropriate moves can be imagined as a part of that activity. Someone might respond,  "Where've you been?", "I've missed you so much","How's your Mother?", "I like your hair", "I'm so happy to see you again", "You're a poopy head", or say nothing at all and just greet by kissing, hugging, shaking hands, smiling warmly, snarling, etc.  Such moves in language are a part of the activity and require  having learned the technique of a language. These are the kinds of things that might occur within a natural language paradigm... Within our linguistic practices and the language game of greetings.

But, in a Verbal Behavior paradigm, the 'behavior of the speaker' is said to be "controlled" by controlling antecedent stimuli such that specific stimuli evoke specific elicited learned responses from speakers. These responses are fixed in learning; "controlled" by antecedent events and maintained by "histories of reinforcement". Responses are taught directly or indirectly and are practiced and necessarily reinforced. What is said is therefore (pre)determined. Therefore, the verbal antecedent,"Hi" will evoke only learned responses. It can't be any other way within a VB calculus. But in language, as illustrated earlier, the number of possible things one can say during greetings is indeterminate...although proponents of 'verbal behavior' argue otherwise. There is not a calculus for language which accounts for the things we say, rather there is a learning to make appropriate moves within/across different language games.


Everything ever said has been learned/ and is under stimulus control 

Think about it.  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 utterances. Any wish wished, every plea pleaded, every promise made. Learned. Reinforced. Every word uttered in every game ever played. All learned. It is on this proposition that 'verbal behavior' (and necessarily, AVB) stands. This is preposterous.


To say that this is the foundation of a science called to account for what we say just doesn't seem to jibe with what we already know. I know I did not learn the very 'verbal behavior' before you. This 'verbal behavior' before you has no 'history of reinforcement' in relation to some specific antecedent evoking it...it's never been uttered before... but here it is. And there is no verbal/nonverbal antecedent evoking it. These words are simply the expression of my thoughts.


But oddly, many today will ask, "Do you have evidence for this?" Where are your data? But these are not questions for science. Investigating a linguistic practice is an anthropological endeavor and does not lend itself to scientific investigation. As for the 'science' of AVB, we must ask, "where are the data tracing my 'verbal behavior' in the ethers of 'histories of reinforcement?' Please, I'd like a full accounting of the events which have led to everything I say here and have ever said. Is this asking too much? It wouldn't be too much for a scientist creating treatments for cancer, or for others involved in solar exploration and discovery. But Skinner and those subscribing to his verbal behavior paradigm and claim it is science and worse, that it is language, get a pass.

"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 "Hi". But efforts to chase down controlling stimuli leaves a big question also when considering the question, "What controls the initial greeting... the initial "Hi"? When initiating a greeting, when someone approaches us, why wouldn't their approach evoke 'tacts',  so that rather than saying "Hello", the initiating greeter might say something like "Red hat", "George", "Pants", etc. Or, isn't it possible that the approaching person may evoke a mand if there is a state of deprivation e.g., hunger should evoke a request for food.  But why "Hi"?. I'm sure the experts in the academy will be able to find some cockamamie account for why someone says, "Hello" ("Manding" for "hello" would be my guess...reflecting a state of deprivation of "hellos"...of course and naming their reinforcer??). But these accounts always leave me scratching my head and seem rather unhelpful and stretch the bounds of sense, even within the conceptual scheme of VB.  A simpler, more parsimonious explanation is that initiating by saying "Hi" is part of a practice... our social / linguistic practice. This is something we do with words... we greet someone when we see them. Greetings are a practice form that we learn... something that we do with words. 


What about stimulus/response generalization

Language refuses to exist under such S-R /operant constraints; even when arguing for 'generalized verbal responses'. This accounting is insufficient when one considers what we actually do in language. Consider again...another verbal antecedent, "Why did you go upstairs?". The possible responses (moves) are indefinite e.g., "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 the countless other possible responses might conform to what is considered 'response generalization'' as defined within ABA is difficult to reconcile. A scientific calculus falters when considering language.


While there are situations in which the term 'response generalization' can be appropriately employed when learning language, such as when learning names (learning the normative use of words for things, events, properties), its use to account for moves in language, doesn't pertain. But this doesn't prevent it's overuse...it's overgeneralization, if you will. Such proclamations are a common fall back position when attempting to account for 'why we say what we say'... as it is common to hear professionals exclaim, "Oh... that's response generalization".  But, I have little confidence that "response generalization" accounts for much of what we say. Extrapolation of this principle in the endless ways it is invoked can't possibly stand up to 'scientific' verification or scrutiny...but this doesn't prevent some very smart people from advancing this notion. (This practice entrances much of the ABA community in the same way "histories of reinforcement" is invoked to account for much of human behavior. Imagine a chemist saying, when asked how to produce a specific protein, and they say, "It's some chemical reactions"). 

There is much to consider if we hope to teach children a language. We already know how to teach children to "emit  responses" evoked by specific antecedents; to teach 'verbal behavior'. That is not difficult.  However, to teach a language to children with ASD is difficult. It first requires a conceptual framework detached from theory and jargon and which simply describes what we do in language. A practical place to start.  

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.