Bandura, Bobo Dolls, and Social Learning
A once habitually traditional behaviorist, Bandura came up with his own spin on things by introducing children to bobo dolls – inflatable pear shaped balloons, weighted at the bottom to induce them to bounce back when hit. Specifically, the children were introduced to the dolls after first watching adults hit, scream at, and kick them. The children surprised no one by then punishing the dolls exactly as the adults had, though they’d been given no instructions to do so. The fact that the children changed their behavior without rewards suggested the major implication of this study: observation alone can change behavior, and significantly affect learning. In many cases observation is the most effective mode of learning, with one obvious example being the enormous impact of peer influence. Many recent theorists believe we are evolutionarily primed to learn through observation.
Bandura developed social learning theory in response to this and similar work. Social learning theory emphasizes that 1) people can learn by observing; 2) specific learning may or may not be associated with an accompanying behavioral change; 3) cognition plays a critical role in learning. Observation is better at teaching some things, such as morality and aggression, and not as good at teaching other things, such as calculus and physics. With whatever is being taught, modeling can be one of the most effective components. Here’s some good info on social learning theory, and here’s a good link on Bandura.
So what does this mean for language learning? For one thing it provides a good counter argument to the assertion that children do not learn language through imitation. They do, though because the imitation is often delayed after the observation, it’s hard to detect, and harder still to measure. One example is when a child uses an adult’s (or a peer’s) cuss word. When another adult says, “I wonder where he got that?” the question is usually rhetorical. The answer is obvious… he got it through observation and functional imitation.