Development of human language

Although Skinner's ideas on operant conditioning are able to explain phobias and neurosis, a number of critics find the applicability to the more complex human behaviors of language and memory sadly lacking. The argument centers around the idea that some portion of language acquisition in young children must be inherited. Infants do not learn language on a word-by-word basis. Instead they learn grammatical rules necessary to produce sentences over time.

Skinner's inability to explain the language phenomenon in a satisfactory way has caused a number of critics to dismiss the theory altogether. While observable objective stimuli for verbal responses are more clear-cut, private stimuli or concepts such as "I'm hungry" are harder to explain. According to Skinner, the acquisition of verbal responses for private stimuli can be explained in four ways. First, he claims that private stimuli and the community do not need a connection. As long as there are some sorts of public stimuli that can be associated with the private stimuli, a child can learn. Also, the public can deduce the private stimuli through nonverbal signs, such as groaning and facial expressions. The critics claim that these nonverbal signs associated with public and private events can often be misinterpreted. His third theory states that certain public and private stimuli are identical; therefore there is no need for interpretation. Finally, he says that private stimuli can be generalized to public stimuli with coinciding characteristics. Although Skinner attempted to respond to ongoing criticism of these claims during his lifetime, his arguments were considered by many to be weak and relatively unproven.

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