Child Language Acquisition Theorists

BEHAVIOURIST THEORY (also known as 'imitation theory')

Developed by B.F Skinner (1904-1990), 'Verbal behaviour' published 1957.

Skinner believed that each child is born with a 'tabula rosa', which means 'blank slate'. This means that all verbal skills and language is learnt and developed through life experiences. Skinner does not agree with the idea that children are born with an innate ability for language.

Acknowledged the role of operant conditioning (learning through reinforcement). Positive and negative reinforcement are thought to be the life experiences that mold a childs language acquisition. For example; correcting a mispronounciation or rewarding the attempt.


  • Real life applications - has improved the understanding of learning, impact on education.
  • Operant conditioning has helped treat phobias (improves validity)
  • Regional accents are evidence of operant conditioning


  • Children have an acquisitional limit at each age - questions the idea that everything is entirely learnt as in theory, a child should be able to learn as much as they observe.
  • Operant conditioning experiments were conducted on animals - no human evidence. Makes it difficult to apply to humans as they are more complex.
  • Children form their own sentences that they would not have heard from an adult (grammatically incorrect) - shows that it is not all observed and learnt.
  • Unethical (research on animals)
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