The Transition From Behaviorism to Cognition

I can understand better now why there was a shift away from the behaviorism of Watson and Skinner to the cognitive perspective in the middle to late 20th century. The limitations of Skinnerian reinforcement/punishment to account for the spontaneous nature of language are a prime example. As I read about language this week I was awestruck at the complexity of language acquisition, assimilation, incorporation, and recitation. It’s a wonder any of us can even communicate with each other. It is also fascinating that language appears to have genetic and biologic precursors that predispose humans to the acquisition of language. Our mind is specifically designed, out vocal cords are specifically formed to bring about language (Willingham, 2007). The levels of language were also very interesting to me. I had never heard of phonemes before, but it is one of those things that seems pretty common-sense after reading about it—maybe the same way that visual ambiguity or working memory seemed the first time that I read about them. I was fascinated by the speech stream that most infants hear. I had never thought of that before. How are infants supposed to know when one word ends and one word begins? I even test myself. I used the recorder in Microsoft Vista and recorded my voice as I read aloud a sentence from chapter 13. Sure enough, there were no dead spots. There were no breaks in between the words. And after looking back at the sentence, sure enough, there were grammatical and syntactical cues that clued me in to the end of words and the beginning of new words. For instance, the last two words in the last sentence, “new words”. What are the chances that a word is going to have two “w” in it right in a row? Pretty low. So that is one grammatical clue that a word has ended and a new one is beginning. Fascinating.


Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal. New York, NY: Pearson Prentice Hall.

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