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Year : 2015  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 67-70

Investigating and explaining language learning theories in psychology

1 Department of Education,Isfahan (Khorasgan) Branch, Islamic Azad University, Isfahan, Iran
2 Department of Medical Education, Medical Education Research Center, Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, Isfahan, Iran

Date of Web Publication27-Feb-2015

Correspondence Address:
Zahra Ghanbarpour
Department of Education, Isfahan (Khorasgan) Branch, Islamic Azad University, Isfahan
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2395-2296.152213

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Learning is the essence of behavior understanding. Since human beings model a behavior from learning, studying the basics of it helps us in knowing the reasons behind our behaviors. Discerning learning methods supports us in comprehending normal behaviors. It allows mutual communication between humans through language. The question of how a human learns a language should be explored in the views of scientists. Results from what was said indicate that the language is a social institution with its certain functions, tasks, and properties. It also maintains that language philosophy is a branch of philosophy that describes and explains general aspects of language. Using the provided principles and rules by linguists is essential in the application of training practices. Research methods: This is review research, in which the required information is extracted from existing documents. This review study aims for, (1) investigating the major theories of language learning, including behavioral and cognitive abstractions, in detail, and (2) addressing their applications in teaching language skills.

Keywords: Behaviourism, cognitivist, language, learning

How to cite this article:
Najmolhoda FS, Ghanbarpour Z, Haghani F. Investigating and explaining language learning theories in psychology. Int J Educ Psychol Res 2015;1:67-70

How to cite this URL:
Najmolhoda FS, Ghanbarpour Z, Haghani F. Investigating and explaining language learning theories in psychology. Int J Educ Psychol Res [serial online] 2015 [cited 2020 Jun 5];1:67-70. Available from: http://www.ijeprjournal.org/text.asp?2015/1/2/67/152213

  Introduction Top

Learning is a process that happens based on experience, and creates relatively constant feeling, thought, and behavior in an individual. Such behaviorists as John Watson and Skinner knew human nature as malleable, playing an important role in the growth of learning; in that, regardless of what talents, tendencies, interests, capabilities, and race a child has inherited from his/her ancestors, it is initial training that forms his/her adolescence. Psychologists like Hans believed that what seems like a function of innate biological program can be affected by environmental events.

In addition, learning does not necessarily lead to performance. Furthermore, since many people would not obtain opportunities to practice what they have learnt, individual differences appear in a wide range of children's speech.

According to Vygotsky, language releases person from the direct sensory experience and comprehension, and allows him to imagine the past or future unseen. The amount of using language in parent-children interactions depends on the culture. In some cultures, where children live in a close relationship with the parents, observing their daily activities and works, verbal interactions occur more. [1]

  Research Methods Top

This is review research, in which the required information is extracted from existing documents. References employed here are: Research plans and theses that are available in domestic and foreign research centers. First, all relevant references in different centers were pinpointed. Then, the usable ones, in terms of content and methodology, were studied, and their results were deduced. The obtained information was analyzed after thematic organization and classification.

Definition of learning

This subject is supported by a rich and various heritage. Near a century ago, the subject of learning was put in the shade of philosophical theories, including those of Aristotle and Plato. After the early experimental investigations by "Ebbinghaus", "Pavlov", and "Thorndike", research methods in natural sciences were also deployed in learning area. They became the basis for several scientific documents developed by psychological laboratories in different parts of the world.

Relationship with philosophy

The topic of learning and its associated theories are closely related to philosophy, just like other psychological domains. What today are known and formed as the present form of learning theories have been advanced in the course of philosophical topics. The present cast of behaviorism is what was first manifested by Aristotle, and then cultivated by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. The current cognitive theories stem from Plato's debates and transferred to us by Descartes, Kant, and other mental psychologists.


Based on this, learning theories are today widely used in training areas through proper design and implementation of curriculum and teaching methods, pediatric psychology, psychopathology, psychotherapy, and social planning.

With respect to the emphases made by experts, especially in educational domains, on practical use of learning theories in training process, it is expected that this psychological field expands further, either in theoretical or practical aspects.

Role of learning

The role of learning is crystal clear in all stages of life. It involves not only with learning certain educational materials, but also with emotional growth, social interaction, and even personality development. For example, what should we be afraid of or like, or how we should behave politely or earnestly.

Relationship between learning and language

Language is a complicated process that allows connection between humans, but how it is learnt is explained differently. Therefore, in this article, we will explain and describe the principle theories of language learning. These theories include: Behavioral, innate or identity-oriented, cognitive, and social ones. In addition, each of them is literally pointed out in education.

A debate between pundits on whether the language is an innate quality or is acquired has led to different abstractions. For example, some of them like Skinner know language learning as a completely acquired quality. Some such as Piaget consider language as a product of mental development, and some others like Bandura believe that the language can be taught to children visually. Finally, some experts such as Chomsky argue that language is an innate ability, and children are biologically prepared to learn and use language.

Trainers and teachers are expected to become familiar with different theories that explain language learning for teaching basic skills of language. They are also banked on using the principles of those approaches in language teaching and learning.

Behavioral theories

This school of thought was set by Watson on 1913. Based on its experience-oriented world-view, it maintains that experience is the only main source of knowledge and learning, and the latter happens just through experience. To behavioral psychologists, what is important in psychology is overt behavior. They usually explain it with conditioning processes. These psychologists highlight the importance of practicing, reinforcing, and being exposed in learning.

According to behaviorists, all human learning including language learning are attained through conditioning principles. To Skinner, language learning does not require an innately complicated or mental mechanism, and the only condition for justifying language learning is regular observation of outside world events, which stimulate a child to produce different sounds. [2] He believes that speaking and listening are responses that like any other type of reaction are affected by reinforcement. Therefore, speech is repeated if it is reinforced. [3]

Behavioral explanation of language acquisition is based on learning from pattern-making, imitation, and reinforcement principles. Implications of this theory for language teaching are that the linguistic behavior of a child is developed and formed through stimulating events and environmental reinforcement. Active participation of adults and other members of the family in the provision of those patterns and reinforcement to help children in language learning is essential. [4] When a child articulates a sound, parents reinforce those sounds that are more similar to actual words by smiling, hugging, and oral responses. Although, imitation and reinforcement can contribute the initial development of language learning, it is more appropriate to consider them as a support for language learning, instead of a through justification for it.

Skinner regards a word as a unit of behavior that objectively creates realizable form of response. In terms of the role, he relates a word to a single or more independent variables of outside world's phenomena. Based on this, he describes speech as a verbal behavior that may be used in the course of environmental events as a stimuli, response, or reward for behavior reinforcement. To him, response in the form of verbal behavior can be strong or weak, in which the stronger one prohibits opposing forces from acting or affecting. [5]

Cognitive theories

Almost at the same time, when behaviorists were expanding their theory, a small group of German psychologists was emphasizing the importance of understanding internal factors of learning in people. Geshtalt, Piaget, and Levin's theories are among cognitive abstractions of learning.

In recent years, a group of psychologists have developed a new school of thought, that is, behavioral-cognitive, by highlighting both internal and external factors. Bandura, Mahonni, and Arenkov are examples of those psychologists. Among other theories shaped afterward are neurophysiological theory of learning and information processing theory.

Advocates of this approach attributed language learning to cognitive capabilities of children, their creativity and interest in understanding and comprehending meanings and expressing them along with information obtained from others. [6] Therefore, thinking and experiencing are taken as the foundation of language learning in children. We will explain three cognitive theories by Bruner, Vygotsky and Piaget.


A child needs two forces for language learning: First, innate capability of language learning, which rises from child's inside. The second one is the force exerted from environment and encourages the child to learn the language, that is, interaction. [7]

Bruner believes that the provision of language learners with a language learning supportive model, which requires learning how to make eye contact, how to redirect others attention through eye movements, and how to emphasize and convey meanings by gestures, is essential. [8] In this model, adults' involvement will result in language learning growth. Meaning of words should be taken into consideration when interacting with a child. At the next stage, the child should learn when and where the word is used, and comprehend functional positions of the words. [9]


Vygotsky was the first one who introduced the role of language in the development of children's higher mental processes to contemporary theories. He identifies three periods in language evolution: Social speech, self-oriented speech, and inner speech. It is social or external speech that appears first and is responsible for controlling others' behavior. This type of speech comes into sight before the age of 3 years. [10] After social speech, self-oriented speech arises, which indeed is the transitional phase of outer speech to inner speech.

At this stage, children often talk to themselves in order to control their behavior. Self-oriented speech occurs between 3 and 7 years. The last phase of speech growth is the development of inner speech, which is silent self-talk. It directs human thought and behavior and exists in every high mental function. Inner speech appears after the age of seven. [11]


Jean Piaget has widely studied the child's cognitive development and considered language as a secondary phenomenon inside of general growth process does not focus on language learning phenomenon directly. According to him, there is not a priori inherent pattern for the development of language and cognition. At the development of language and language learning through cognitive growth; therefore, language learning does not the main theme of his investigations. Child's language as a source of data required for an investigation into cognitive growth. Piaget rejects any innate or inherent feature in learning and development of language. Language learning occurs as a secondary phenomenon internal to the general process of child's cognitive development and assimilation with environment.

Based on this, language learning only depends on cognitive development. It means that the child gains certain aspects of language skill only when an appropriate level of cognitive development is achieved. Then, the progress and coordination between cognitive and language development continues to grow until a child adequately masters all aspects of language skill. Yet, Piaget does not hold any opinion on many aspects of language development.

A child's language begins to appear only after the emergence of intelligence caused by primary sensory perceptions almost at the age of 18. [12] In contrast to Vygotsky, distinguishes between language and thought, as well as between their growth rates language stems from thought and logic, whose roots should be explored in the coordination of general actions through which a language is created. [13] According to the Piaget's theory, child learns a language via assimilation and adaptation. He believes that a child's thoughts and language are interacting, and intellectual processes determine which parts of the language should be internalized or externalized. In addition, he argues that the schema is the inhibitor of child's basic knowledge. For example, an infant who gains some knowledge on milk. When parents use the word milk, the child acquires this new term and changes his/her basic knowledge by assimilating the concept of milk with the word milk. When a child grows up, his/her language develops because he/she understands language complexities better and changes it with more complex thoughts. [14]

Shortcomings of Piaget's theory

Chomsky criticizes Piaget's notion, which maintains that language development is based on "intellectual constructs caused by sensory conceptions." He argues that this assumption does not offer any clear proposal for explaining language development phenomenon. [15]

  Conclusion Top

The integration of learning theories with biological discoveries is crystal clear. Experimental studies into biological and physiological domains prove a close relationship between learning and biological changes in neurons and language. In addition, studies on and principles of learning theories are functionally related with educational sciences.

Diversity of theories on children language learning is indicative of the complexity of language learning process. Each theory looks at human nature in a different way. Theories which believe that man is born without any special abilities attribute a child's language learning to environmental stimuli and conditioning principles. In contrast, those who think that a child is born with a set of linguistic capabilities and talents emphasize on the role of heredity in language learning. With a small reflection on these theories, language is a product of mutual interaction between environment and heredity. In a one-dimensional phenomenon is not passive but is considered as a complex set.

  References Top

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Robbins RH. A Short History of Linguistics. Haghshenas M, Translator. Tehran: Markaz; 1990. p. 246  Back to cited text no. 6
Moshkohaldini M. The Course of Linguistics. 2 nd ed. Mashhad: Ferdowsi University of Mashhad Publishers; 1997.  Back to cited text no. 7
Rajae A, Bayazi MH, Habibipoor H. Investigating the relationship between fundamental religious beliefs with identity crisis and metal health of youths. J Iran Psychol 2008; 12: 56-87.  Back to cited text no. 8
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Hearts G. Spirituality and Mental Health: Clinical Applications. Kamkar A, Jafari E, Translator. Tehran: Virayesh Publishers, (Original Work Published 2005); 2008.  Back to cited text no. 10
Beeler R. Application of Psychology in Education. Kadivar P, Translator. 4 th ed., Vol. 1. Tehran: Daneshgahi Publishers; 1994.  Back to cited text no. 11
Seif S, Morteza Karzi Abasnejad, Amin Allah Alavi, Morteza Moghadamipour,Ali Ramezanzadeh,Hadi Hasanpour,Reza Naghavi et al,. Growth Psychology. 8 th ed. Tehran: Samt Publishers; 1998.  Back to cited text no. 12
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