Operant Conditioning and Second Language Acquisition

Second language acquisition [SLA] is simply the learning of a second language after the first language is established. Operant conditioning is sometimes used in SLA, because of the influence of Behaviourism on language acquisition in 1950s and ’60s.

B. F. Skinner wrote, “operant conditioning shapes behavior as a sculptor shapes a lump of clay.”

According to Saul McLeod (2015) operant condition “means roughly changing of behavior by the use of reinforcement which is given after the desired response.”

Operant conditioning has been used in SLA by rewarding “good behaviour” (i.e. saying a sentence in the second language correctly) with a stimulus (i.e. praise or a good grade) and punishing “bad behaviour” with a different stimulus (i.e. being corrected or a bad grade). The belief is that language is a completely learnt behaviour, which someone can be conditioned to do. Overtime the conditioning will create learning.


McLeod, S. (2015). Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. The Free Press: New York