Understanding Language Development: The Deeper Wisdom in B. F. Skinner’s Completely Incorrect Theory
Catherine Snow (Harvard University)
B. F. Skinner Lecture Series Paper
Catherine Snow is the Patricia Albjerg Graham Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She received her Ph.D. in 1971 from McGill University, having written a dissertation on Mothers’ Speech to Children in which she argued against Chomsky’s claim that the ‘primary linguistic data’ available to children was misleading, degraded, and ungrammatical. She subsequently worked for 8 years in the Linguistics Department of the University of Amsterdam, and has worked since 1980 at Harvard. Her current work focuses on the quality of early childhood programs, and on promoting discussion to support learning in elementary classrooms.
In 1959 Noam Chomsky published a famously scathing review of Skinner’s 1957 book, Verbal Behavior. For the next 30 or so years, invoking the role of the child’s language environment in explaining acquisition was viewed positively only in limited clinical and restricted educational contexts, while the majority of legitimate child language researchers focused on children’s acquisition of rules and abstract patterns remote from their actual verbal behavior. However, the role of the child’s language environment was never fully ignored as a research topic, and in the last 30 years has regained legitimacy as an explanation for individual and group differences in rate and course of acquisition. Although some might take this as an affirmation of the claims in Verbal Behavior, child language researchers would vehemently reject that interpretation, noting, for example, the central role that must be attributed to infants’ innate social-pragmatic categories and their general cognitive capacities, which far transcend the learning mechanisms Skinner posited. This talk will summarize the findings supporting a role for variation in the child’s language environment in explaining aspects of language development, and argue that the polarizing dispute between Skinner and Chomsky retarded progress toward understanding how children’s innate socio-pragmatic skills and linguistic input interact to support language development.