Empiricism and Behaviorism

In linguistics, there are 2 sets of ideas, which have influenced the direction of foreign language learning and teaching studies. Psycholinguistics elaborately discusses it. These two major language theories are-1. Empiricism (Behaviorism) 2.rationalism (cognitivism,mentalism) Psycholinguistics studies the mental process that a person uses in producing and understanding language and how human learn language.

Psycholinguistics includes the study of speech perception, the role of memory, concepts and other processes in language use and how social factors affect the use of language. There is a central conflict between different theories of language learning .

It is the great division between linguistics. The empiricists versus the rationalists divide the language teaching methodologies. It also affects the theories of language learning process. So it is necessary to discuss empiricism and rationalism to explore how these opposing philosophies have exerted their influence in particular areas-linguistics and learning theory.


At the end of nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, contemporary linguistics started developing. Linguistics with Saussure at the forefront developed a set of analytic techniques to understand how the language is structured. They used to work from instances of a language's use. Two terms coined by early twentieth century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure are langue and parole. These terms proved useful to linguists. Seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke is called the father of empiricism. Later American linguist Leonard Bloomfield who was the part of this philosophical tradition called empiricism, systematized and put together some analytic procedures in his influential book called Language (1993). To opt for structuralism one of his aims was to be scientific in his approach to linguistic analysis.

This tradition of empiricism placed central importance on sense data -concrete, material things that can be seen, touched, heard, recorded, measured. It served as the basis for scientific enquiry.

According to the Longman dictionary of applied linguistics Empiricism can be defined as an approach to psychology which states that the development of the theory must be related to observable facts and experiments or which states that all human knowledge comes from experience.

Therefore empiricism concerns only scientific approach which in the study of language. Leads precisely to the procedure of using actual instances of speech as the starting point for analysis.

According to Bloomfield, science (linguistics as a science) was concerned with the observable and the physical. Due to this, structural linguistics merged with a school of psychology, which is also aggressively interested in the observable and the physical. This school is called Behaviorism.


Behaviorism can be defined as a theory of psychology, which states that human and animal behavior can and should be studied in terms of physical processes only. (Longman dictionary of applied linguistics.)

This theory led to theories of learning of learning which explained how an external event, a stimulus caused a change, in the behavior of an individual (a response) without using concepts like "mind" or "ideas" or any kind of mental behavior. Behaviorism was an important influence on psychology, education and language teaching.

The four influential protagonists in behaviorism-

i) Nineteenth century Russian, Ivan palav

ii) Early twentieth century American John Waston

iii) Early twentieth century American Edward thorndike.

iv) Mid-twentieth century American Burrhus skinner.

Among them John Waston is called father of behaviorism. Behaviorism was concerned with how learning process took place. 3 basic behaviorist ideas: -

1) Conditioning

2) Habit formation

3) The importance of the 'environment' Pavlov gave the idea of 'conditioning'.

In this idea, learning is seen as question of developing connections between incidents (events). It is also known as stimulus response bonds. This process of developing connections is called conditioning. Skinner gave the idea of habit formation. In this learning is seen as a question of habit formations. The behaviorist shared the views of structural linguists, which was grounded on the importance of physical events also called sense data. Hence they did not accept the idea of some unobservable, abstract entity called 'mind' being involved in learning.


1.Lexical Semantics-D.A.Cruse

Cambridge university press

2.Semantics - a course book

James R..Hurford, Brendan Heasley

Cambridge university press

3.Semantics -a new outline

F.R. Palmer

Cambridge university press
Published: 10/22/2009
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