The Psychology of Communication


4.2 Growing And Conditioning

Interactionists agree with the humanists that The person is growing from the inside out and with the behaviorists that The person is conditioned from the outside in. However, just as they emphasize intrinsic motivation, so they also emphasize inside-out growing. This is the primary process. However, the person can not grow in a vacuum.

In Chapter 2, we learned how behaviorists explained language learning as conditioning. Watson explained it as classical conditioning. Speaking is a series of conditioned reflexes in which the stimulus fedback from one response is linked to the next response. However, there is simply not enough time for the feedback from a spoken sound to trigger the next sound in the series. We speak too fast to allow the nerve impulse to make the round trip from mouth to brain and back. Nor is there enough time in our short lives to learn all the strings of sounds we use. It has been estimated that learning every possible string of words up to 20, even with perfect retention after only one presentation, would take 100 years, with no time off for eating and sleeping. It would be like learning the number system by memorizing ever possible sequence of digits.

Skinner explained language learning as instrumental conditioning. Children learn by imitating adults. However (as all parents know) children often say novel things, which they have never heard adults say. The creativity of children is nicely demonstrated by what we, in our adultocentric way, call mistakes. Children do not learn to say "goed" and "foots" by imitating adults. Such novel and "wrong" responses suggest that the learning of language can not be purely a matter of imitating adults and being reinforced for correct responses. It is more a matter of learning rules. Since the rule for past tense is "add 'ed', she says "goed". Since the rule for plural is "add 's'", she says "foots". She is not at first aware that adults have those weird exceptions to the rules, but soon learns those exceptions to the rules and says "went" and "feet".

Karena, an Inuit girl adopted by my former neighbors in the Gatineau, speaks English. Skinner could explain why she speaks English rather than Inuktatuk. She is growing up in a community in which she can imitate English sounds and sentences and is reinforced for creating English sounds and sentences. Such a language community is a necessary condition for the acquisition of a language, but is not a sufficient condition. The same neighbors also "adopted" a husky. Pattak spent his first few years in an Inuktatuk-language community and his later years in an English-language community, but Pattak (who could be bilingual now, were he a Skinnerian dog) has learned neither Inuktatuk nor English. Karena - but, not poor Pattak - was born with the potential to speak a language, any language, and that potential could be realized by spending her early years in any language community.

After demolishing Skinner's theory [CHOMSKY 1959], Noam Chomsky, a linguist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proposed as an alternative his innate capacity theory [CHOMSKY 1966]. Karena could learn English because she belongs to a species which has a language acquisition device (LAD) built into its nervous system, whereas Pattak could learn neither Inuktatuk nor English because he belongs to a species which, alas, lacks a LAD. Karena was prewired to learn a language - not Inuktatuk or English or any particular language but whatever language was used in her environment.2 Language is, therefore, primarily an inside-out process based on the unfolding of the genetic potential. The outside-in influence of the linguistic environment serves the necessary, but secondary, function of providing "fuel" to keep the language-generating genetic machinery working.3 Jerome Bruner calls this the language acquisition support system (LASS) [BRUNER]. Every LAD needs a LASS.

Karena was not imitating adults and being reinforced for her correct responses; she was learning the rules for combining units in a language. The sentence must contain a noun phrase and a verb phrase. The noun phrase must contain an article and a noun. The verb phrase must contain a verb and a noun phrase. By applying those vocabulary rules, the kernel sentence is churned out. Rules of transformation may, then, be used to make this sentence ("the boy hit the ball") passive ("the ball was hit by the boy"), negative ("the boy did not hit the ball"), or interrogative ("did the boy hit the ball?"). Thus, underlying the sequential presentation of language (surface structure), there is a hierarchical structure of thought (deep structure). Language is an expression of thought.

Watch your professor lecture. Whatever you may think about the content of the lecture, you must admire the form. You are observing the most magnificent feat of the most exciting species on the planet. Sentences are generated, not sequentially from left to right, as common sense and behaviorism suggests, but hierarchically from deep to surface structure. You may marvel at a three-hour lecture, since you are aware of the surface structure of language, a sequence of thousands of words. However, the professor is working from the deep structure of thought, a few dichotomies. For example, I talked about classical conditioning and then instrumental conditioning. Under each, I talked about the pioneer and then a modern exponent, under each, I talked about the man and then his work. If I am so dumb that I can't even remember the few dichotomies, I flash an outline on the screen ostensibly to show you where you are at, where we have been, and where we are going but actually to remind myself.4

Konrad Lorenz demonstrated that nature leaves a gap in the development of the goose to be filled in by the environment by arranging that the first large moving object the gosling saw on emerging from the egg was not mother goose but Lorenz [LORENZ]. Those goslings followed Lorenz rather than mother goose, the source of satisfiers of survival needs, as nature intended.5 Language acquisition could be considered as such imprinting on a larger scale. Nature leaves a large gap in the development of the human to be filled in by the language community.

Those who view teaching as an outside-in process consider it as guided growth. Growth is too important to be left entirely to the grower - it should be guided from the outside in. We have always known that motor development involves a series of stages, each of which is a prerequisite to the next. We must sit before we stand, stand before we walk, walk before we run, and run before we play soccer. Now that we know that cognitive growth also involves such a set of prerequisite stages, we must determine the sequence of stages and guide children through them.

Extreme outside-inners have argued that, not only is the mind a "tabula rasa" (blank slate) at birth, but the "tabula" will remain "rasa" unless they write on it. Completely denying that the child is growing from the inside out, they attempt to "grow" the child entirely from the outside in. To be efficient, they "grow" the child as fast as possible.

Let us look at one such "force-fed" child. Boris Sidis, a professor of abnormal psychology at Harvard University, was one such extreme outside-inner. He believed that geniuses were not born but created by scientific teaching techniques, and proceeded to demonstrate his theory with his son called William James in anticipation of emulating that other genius [ROSENBERG].

William James Sidis had alphabet blocks suspended over his crib before he was 6 months old, was banging away on a typewriter at 2, learning Latin and Greek at 6, and banging at Harvard's door at 9. He was admitted at 11, lectured to the science faculty on four-dimensional bodies during his first year, and graduated magna cum laude.

So far so good. But then something snapped. He abruptly withdrew from academic work and took the lowliest job he could find. Though he feigned stupidity with genius, he sometimes slipped up by letting his genius show through, and had to refuse promotions or shift to another job. Most of his "genius" during his adult life was devoted to amassing and classifying a huge collection of streetcar transfers, to which he became fanatically attached as a symbol of his freedom during the streetcar rides between his home and Harvard University. This force-fed child grew into a tragic, lonely, obese man wandering around Boston with a spiked stick to rescue discarded streetcar transfers from the gutters.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Emile , his influential book on education, presented an extreme inside-out view of child-rearing, from which inside-outers developed the concept of natural readiness [ROUSSEAU]. Do not provide instruction until the children are ready for it. The best judges of their own readiness are the children themselves. Let them learn in their own way at their own time and at their own pace. Extreme inside-outers (including one of my more naive former selves) argue that adults should not "interfere" at all in the maturational process. We should merely sit back and gaze, with awe, at the wondrous unfolding of the human potential.

No one is sufficiently committed to this extreme view to test it by letting a child grow totally untrammeled by interference. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, consistent with his theory, came close by abandoning his many illegitimate children. However, they were raised by their mothers or in foundling homes if given up for adoption. The experiment has been conducted, however, by accident. A number of children, abandoned at an early age, have survived usually with the help of animals. Let us consider, by way of example, one such feral child [ITARD].

Victor was about 12 years old when he was spotted, completely naked, in the Caune Woods in France and captured as he climbed a tree trying to escape. When news of the capture of the Wild Boy of Aveyron reached Paris, fashionable society was set a-twitter with speculation about the "noble savage", a concept which Rousseau had introduced in his book.

Victor turned out to be more "savage" than "noble". He grunted like an animal, grubbed for roots and acorns to eat, and bit and scratched those who opposed him. Other romantics, who expected at least a fine physical specimen (like, say, Tarzan), were equally disappointed. Victor was filthy, scarred, stunted and moved by trotting on all fours rather than swinging from tree to tree. All such feral children behave more like the animals that reared them than the humans that bore them. Dr. Itard, who undertook the belated socialization of Victor, was never able to teach him to speak and could teach him to read only a few simple words and phrases, despite intensive efforts over five years.

No one would like their child to grow up like either William James Sidis, the force-fed child, or Victor, the feral child, and no serious theorist would argue for the extreme positions which produced them. Every theorist advocates some position along a dimension ranging between total emphasis on outside-in learning and total emphasis on inside-out maturation. Advocates of "guided growth" tend toward the outside-in end and advocates of "natural readiness" tend toward the inside-out end of the dimension. Everyone agrees that mental growth requires nourishment but that children should neither be force-fed (extreme outside-in view) nor required to forage for all their own food (extreme inside-out view). The debate is whether to present the intellectual fare as a set menu or as a smorgasbord.

Advocates of guided growth prefer the set menu. Find a healthy and balanced diet for the typical child at a given grade level, and provide this set menu as the curriculum for that grade. Each "dish" is a prerequisite to the next. If you don't eat your potatoes, you can't get dessert. Advocates of natural readiness prefer the smorgasbord. Lay out a rich variety of resources and allow the children to choose however much of whichever dishes in whatever order they desire. All you can eat for $4.50. If you have a big intellectual appetite, then you get your money's worth.

The interactionists view the student as dealing not only with input information, as in the transportation theory of communication, or not only with input and stored information, as in the transformation theory of communication, but with input and stored and fedback information. He/she is actively exploring and manipulating the environment in order to know and understand it. The exploration is guided by fedback information from the environment as a result of his/her actions. Their position could be viewed as a balance between the extreme outside-in position, with its over-emphasis on input information, and the extreme inside-out position with its over-emphasis on stored information. The relationship between input information and stored information is orchestrated by fedback information. Behavior is viewed, then, not as a series of responses to stimuli (reflex arc) but rather as a series of operations to remove a discrepancy between the present state and a desired state (feedback loop). The reflex arc is dead. Long live the feedback loop!

2   This explains why a child can learn a language so easily. Indeed, a child can learn more than one language easily. However, to raise children to be fluently bilingual , it is better to have the two languages learned in different contexts. When we mentioned this to Pierre Trudeau on one of his visits to our think tank GAMMA, he said "Good, the boys speak English when with their mother and French when they are with me". It also explains why adults have difficulty learning a second language - the critical period for learning language has passed.

3   We all, of course, know this. We all get the joke about the couple, planning to adopt a Chinese baby, who took courses in Chinese so that they would understand what she was saying when she grew up.

4   PowerPoint presentations have become powerful teaching aids, serving as electronic cue cards.

5   By meddling with nature's plans, Lorenz turned behavior which served an essential survival function into behavior which served no useful function - beyond supplying cute photos for introductory psychology textbooks.