Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


31st Annual Convention; Chicago, IL; 2005

Event Details

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Symposium #72
First Language Learning Revisited: In Memory of Ernst L. Moerk
Saturday, May 28, 2005
4:00 PM–5:20 PM
Stevens 3 (Lower Level)
Area: VRB; Domain: Theory
Chair: David C. Palmer (Smith College)
Abstract: With the passing of Ernst L. Moerk in 2004, those with an interest in an empirically-based approach to first language learning lost a valued friend and ally. Moerk’s detailed, exhaustive analyses of actual mother/child verbal interactions continue to provide perhaps the best account of how language is actually acquired. In this symposium, four papers shall be presented in the Moerkian tradition. The first discusses the role of automatic reinforcement in language learning, the second provides a neo-pragmatist account of Moerk’s counterarguments to the poverty of the stimulus argument, the third discusses issues in infant speech perception, and the fourth, Moerk’s skills learning model.
The Role of Automatic Reinforcement in First Language Learning
DAVID C. PALMER (Smith College)
Abstract: The observation that parents often explicitly correct their children for errors of fact but seldom for deviations from standard forms of verbal behavior helped persuade a generation of linguists and psycholinguists that the orderliness of relations among verbal elements must be innately constrained. Ernst Moerk found that the data showed no such thing; verbal episodes are replete with reinforcers. However a residuum of puzzling phenomena remained: The subtlety of acquisition of verbal operants seemed to be incommensurate with the timing and specificity of feedback from others. However, the missing source of control appears to derive from a subject's status as both speaker and listener. As Skinner observed, if a child's verbal behavior conforms to the practices of his verbal community, it will exert discriminative control over his own behavior as a listener. That control can become a conditioned reinforcer that strengthens standard forms without the mediation of another person.
Bolstering Moerk’s Critique of the Argument from Poverty of the Stimulus: A Neo-Pragmatist Approach
TED SCHONEBERGER (Stanislaus County Office of Education)
Abstract: The argument from the poverty of the stimulus (APS) maintains that the input provided by the environment is too meager to explain the first language learner’s knowledge of language. This argument has been used by Chomsky (e.g., 1965) and others (e.g., Pinker, 1994) to support the claim that much of what a human knows about language is innately determined. By providing detailed analyses of the richness of the input provided to the child by her mother, Moerk (e.g., 1989) has countered the APS. However, Moerk’s counterarguments have themselves been countered. For example, Marcus (1993) critiqued Moerk for his alleged failure to provide an objective definition of the term corrections as used by him in classifying certain maternal responses to the child. Similarly, the terms stimulus and response, when used--as Moerk (1990) does--to characterize mother/child verbal interactions, have long been criticized (e.g., Chomsky, 1959) for lacking objective definitions. In this paper I utilize Richard Rorty’s (e.g., 1989s) neo-pragmatist argument that what is crucial is the utility--not the supposed objectivity--of one’s descriptive and explanatory terminology.
Some Issues in Infant Speech Perception: Do the Means Justify the Ends?
RAYMOND S. WEITZMAN (California State University, Fresno)
Abstract: For the past 30 years or so, research on language acquisition in infancy has been proceeding at a brisk pace. A major focus of this research involves experimental studies of the infant’s ability to discriminate various kinds of speech or speech-like stimuli. Primarily by means of habituating infant responses to eliciting speech stimuli followed by the presentation of novel stimuli and by means of operant discrimination training, it has been demonstrated that infants are sensitive to many fine-grained differences in the acoustic properties of speech utterances. These properties include duration, fundamental frequency, intensity, format frequencies, transitory acoustic variations, etc. However, these empirical findings have led investigators to theorize about how the infants internally process and represent speech stimuli. Investigators have used the results of their infant perception studies to claim that infants go through some kind of segmental processing which enables them to detect differences in the phonotactic organization of syllables and words. They regard this ability as crucial in the learning of language. This presentation will examine the experimental protocols used in these experiments, both logically and methodologically, and discuss whether these theoretical conclusions are adequately warranted by the experimental results.
A Seeker of Wisdom and Truth: Ernst Moerk and a Skills Learning Model of Early Language Development
GARY D. NOVAK (California State University, Stanislaus)
Abstract: While not trained in behavior analysis, Ernst Moerk was a frequent contributor to ABA conventions and to behavioral journals. This paper will describe the contributions of Ernst Moerk in unraveling the role of environmental experiences in the development of language development in children. The paper will detail the anti-environmental bias that predominated psycholinguistic writings of the last part of the 20th century and the role that Moerk’s writing played in answering that. The paper will review Moerk’s books and articles published with and outside of the behavior analytic literature, detail the methodology used, summarize Moerk’s conclusions, and provide suggested links for future behavior-analytic research on the environmental influences on early language development.



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