Brief Overview

This is a brief overview of behaviorism for the reader to understand the main points. Readers are encouraged to study more in-depth to gain a full appreciation of the history, development, and implementation of this theory. At the end are guiding questions for the educator to contemplate instruction and behaviorism.

Behaviorism traces its beginning back to Pavlov’s experiment with the classical conditioning of dogs. A psychologist by the name of John B Watson seized upon these experiments and introduced the first concept of behaviorism in 1913. In Watson’s classical behaviorism, language production was the result of stimuli that produced the formation of a habit. According to Watson, the idea of mental processing of language was mere ‘superstition.’ However, the most popular sect in behaviorism is neo-behaviorism as defined by BF Skinner.  Skinner proposed that a stimulus wasn’t always available, so more important was the consequence of responses from production- reward or punishment. Assisted by reward and punishment, the habit was formed through imitation.

Regardless of which form is followed, the two key factors remain the same in behaviorism: habit formation and errors. Habits, whether formed by stimuli (Watson) or imitation (Skinner), were essential in developing language. Errors were seen as evidence of non-learning and were to be avoided or corrected at all cost.

This psychological approach to language learning was connected with structural linguistics to form the teaching approach audio-lingual method (ALM). The structural linguistics portion compared the native language and the foreign language being learned. Since mental processes were disregarded, the emphasis was on the teacher to “drill” problematic areas and correct errors as they happened. Pronunciation and sentence structure are two problematic areas of concentration during instruction.

Example of Teaching

Teacher: I want a hamburger. (holding a picture of a hamburger)
Students: I want a hamburger.
Teacher: hot dog. (holding a picture of a hot dog)
Students: hot dog.
Teacher: No! (emphasis) I want a hot dog.
Students: I want a hot dog.
Teacher: Good job!


Behaviorism gained prominence during WWII and the following decade, but in the late 1950s Noam Chomsky interjected the mentalist movement into the world of education to challenge the tenets of behaviorism, and the momentum began to wane . Additionally, science became more interested in the understanding of language acquisition, and as the data began to come available, behaviorism started to collapsed as research showed first languages were not learned through mimicry. Children produce sentences that no adult would ever utter.  Another blow came via a hypothesis called contrastive analysis which was to prove behaviorism and structuralism; however, it  failed to provide the answers needed to prove the theory. The results showed comparing languages was very difficult from a transfer standpoint as different languages had different features that couldn’t be easily classified or assessed. Add this to various other shortcomings and behaviorism an ALM fell out of favor quickly. However, there are still proponents of behaviorism and there are educators who still promote it as a proper method of instruction.

However, The Pimsleur Approach/Method uses tenets of ALM and has successfully helped people all over the world learn a foreign language. The use of behaviorism is not without merits, but caution should be used for full implementation.

How Not To Use

  • Errors are not bad! : Error Analysis showed that there are multiple reasons for errors (developmental, mistakes, hypothesizing, overgeneralization, etc…) Errors have valuable information encoded in them which can be of great importance to the educator.

Find out more information on how to not to use behaviorism in our online SLA course. Get information and discounts on our course HERE.

Strategies For Use

  • Reward being correct, but ENCOURAGE when incorrect: Almost every teacher of young learners rewards students with words of praise. However, all students respond better when rewarded for doing well regardless of age or level. On the other hand, encouraging students when wrong is far more beneficial to the psyche of the student.
    • Strategies for encouragement
      • Use a nonjudgmental voice- be soft and understanding
      • Smile while correcting- as to say, “it’s no big deal”
      • Reassure- “it’s ok, you’re doing well.”
      • Student upset by mistake- get eye level and encourage
      • Higher level students get upset by mistakes- reassure them that you, the educator, still make mistakes and it’s your native language.
      • Above all, use intrinsic (inner) motivation above extrinsic (outward) motivation- view that article here.

Find out more information on how to use behaviorism in our online SLA course. Get information and discounts on our course HERE.

Final Thoughts

Although behaviorism isn’t recognized as an efficient method of learning a foreign language, many students have learned via this theory and the Pimsleur Approach has been very successful over the years. There is much the educator can take from this theory to enhance the classroom and assist in student learning. No one style works for every student, class or educator, exploring different aspects of theory and assessing (after a couple of times- first time rarely goes correctly) will lead to acquiring bits and pieces to build the style that’s better for everyone involve.


Author’s note: I had a chance to teach the ALM method (based off behaviorism) and assess the results as a consultant/teacher at several Chinese public schools years ago. At the end of the semester, the students had no real grasp of the language taught, nor could they use it correctly. I met students that were in the program for three to four years that could barely hold a simple conversation. Although this happens with other teaching styles, it was far more prevalent than one could imagine with students from this program. The classes were designed to be fun, but failed in the overall scope of things.