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). Words are used within activities and practices such as asking, telling, naming, directing, promising, describing, explaining, cajoling, negotiating, refuting, refusing, agreeing, correcting, teasing, tattling, inviting, etc. to refer. 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 learn language according to their capacities. Children are taught systematically within an Early Intensive Behavior Intervention framework and are taught with the benefit of behavioral tools, procedures, strategies and techniques which, when applied expertly and appropriately, lead to effective, comprehensive and efficient learning. At Nexus, mastery of a language necessarily occurs outside the constraints of popular conceptual approaches.

Learning a language is not reducible to science

The bedrock of science is prediction and control. Science is to account for cause (where there are forces acting on things). It's silly to think that language can be reduced to such terms; "control" and "prediction" or to causal explanation. Such efforts have resulted in impenetrable efforts. Try reading Skinner for example or any journal article or slide presentation on verbal behavior and see if you can tell anyone what was said. I have to admit, I'm not so smart that I can. And, it seems, that persistent efforts to 'explain' take experts deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. There is a way out. A descriptive account of language frees us from this struggle to explain and from this exhausting quagmire. An 'ordinary language' framework requires that we simply survey what we do as a language users and teach what is in front of our noses.


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. 


As children, our guides in learning a linguistic practice hadn't mastered a theory of language or 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 under particular circumstances, we first need to contrive situations 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", "If we use my ball, you have to pay for it if someone steals it", "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, 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 ... the things we do with words.


Let's not forget, the same words (symbols)  have different uses... a "ball" can be something for play, a place we go ( a formal affair), or to describe our experience (I had a ball). Science doesn't account for that...conventions do. So if I say, "I had a ball", will science tell me what it means? Will determining if it is a tact, mand or intraverbal tell me anything useful about that statement or how and when to use it? Does it matter if there is joint control, if it's a 'pure tact' or a 'defective mand'?  These categories of operants have nothing to do with use. In language, how a term is used determines its meaning. To teach use, to teach use within practice forms is a part of what is required to a teach language. So if someone asked, "How was the party?" and the answer given is, "I had a ball",  in this instance, the term is used to refer to one's experience and not that one was holding a ball at the party. This is not an account of generalization, but of different uses of the term "ball". An analysis of verbal behavior is of little help here, but an ordinary language approach alerts use to the need to address that words (the same word/symbol) often have multiple uses.


More on determining goals for language learning

Setting goals for language instruction simply requires that we account for what we do in language descriptively and teach to those goals. What an utterance "is", as attempted 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. Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior is a separate conceptual system from language. It is incompatible with language and is not about language (Skinner, 1957 p.2). No amount of 'conceptual acrobatics' will align these systems. No amount of analysis about what kind of verbal operant something "is" will direct interventionists to what needs to be done when teaching a child with ASD a language.

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. The game of chess can't be reduced to science any more than the 'games' in language. To work outside of this framework is to only scratch at 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 persons who can't manage to do it without extraordinary assistance.

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. Thus, verbal responses are 'emitted or evoked' in the presence of stimuli to which they've been reinforced. Within 'verbal behavior' based intervention, hefty lists of "verbal responses" (according to response class) are accumulated and graphed. Graphs with upward trends allow for the conclusion, "Children are learning". This is unequivocal. Children learn to emit verbal responses controlled by specific antecedent stimuli (verbal or nonverbal) - behavior said to be accounted for by various controlling operant relations, so we may say that "learners  (i.e., children) have responses" (verbal operants). This is all fine except for one thing. Verbal behavior, within a 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.

This mis-guides. 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 10,000 has no relationship to linguistic ability.  "Having responses" is akin to someone 'having' all of their chess pieces.  But"having" them has nothing to do with one's ability to use them in a game of chess...has nothing to do with their understanding of how to play chess. "Having verbal operants" means nothing about being able to make moves in language. Just as science can't tell us anything about the game of chess, neither can it reveal anything about the rule bound games we learn in language. Verbal behavior has nothing to do with language despite the confused proclamations of AVB advocates who somehow ignore Skinner's own designations.


To learn a linguistic practice is to learn appropriate moves/ not fixed responses 

In language, we learn to make moves within language games. In a greeting game, such as when someone says, "Hi", does not predict or control "Hello" in return. Any number of appropriate responses can be imagined such as, "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", etc. What constitutes an appropriate response is determined by context (circumstances), history, activity and the practices of the verbal community.

In a VB paradigm, the 'behavior of the speaker' is said to be "controlled" by controlling antecedents.That responses are learned (determined). Therefore, the verbal antecedent,"Hello" can only produce responses 'learned' in the presence of "hello". 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.  All possibilities can't possibly be 'learned' (directly or indirectly) ... although proponents of 'verbal behavior' argue otherwise.  Such a proposition is preposterous. Similarly, the proposition that all responses to all things that others say to us are learned is simply absurd. But, it is this proposition on which verbal behavior' (and necessarily AVB) stands.

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 the 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 you 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.


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...it's rather unscientific accounting.  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 lacks '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 same way "histories of reinforcement" is invoked to account for much of human behavior. Imagine a chemist saying, "It's just some chemical reactions which takes place of under different conditions" as a way to account for what happens in chemistry.)

There is much to consider if we hope to teach children a language. We already know how to teach children to "emit  responses"; to teach 'verbal behavior'. That is not difficult.  However, to teach a language to children with ASD is difficult. It requires a conceptual framework detached from theory and jargon. 

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.

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