Teaching Second Language Through Behaviorism (Complete Guide)

There are many different methods of teaching second languages, but many of the best known methods incorporate aspects of behaviorism. This psychological theory states that learning a language is a conditioned response.

Behaviorism is an excellent method for teaching second language learning. It encourages students to listen to the foreign language and then mimic it in a rote method. This helps them learn the sounds and patterns associated with the language through behavioral conditioning.

Behaviorism is one of the best methods for teaching a second language to increase retention of the knowledge learned, especially at the beginning stage. As a former ESL teacher in public schools, I am familiar with and have used behaviorist techniques along with other strategies for helping students become fluent in English. Read on and learn more about behaviorism, and how it helps people teach a second language to others. 

The Basics of Behaviorism and Language

In psychology, behaviorism is a psychological theory that states that humans learn basic human behavior such as language through repetitive imitation of other humans.

Through listening to their parents, babies learn to mimic the pronunciation and syntax of their native language. All knowledge in behaviorism is drawn in from a person’s surrounding environmental stimuli. 

Behaviorism as it applies to language is shown in a person’s observable behavior or the way that they speak.

Behaviorist teaching methods for learning a second language only affect how a person learns to speak, not necessarily whether or not they begin to think in their second language. The things learned through behaviorism are taught through memorization and repetition. 

Behaviorism and Language Acquisition

Behaviorism isn’t just the result of mimicry—it also results from conditioning. In the case of language acquisition, parents are known for giving their babies exaggerated praise for pronouncing their first sounds or words.

This positive reinforcement encourages the child to make more imitations of human speech, eventually paving the way for fluency. (Source: Behaviorist Theory)

The Role of Reward in Language Acquisition
Even though positive reinforcement is a large part of language acquisition for babies, it is not the only thing that affects how babies learn a language.

After all, children who are neglected or do not receive praise and reward for language acquisition will often still learn at least a rudimentary form of language. Therefore, the environment where speech is heard continues to influence with or without reward.

This can be seen in people who are learning a second language by immersion method. If someone moves to a foreign country where they do not learn the language, they will eventually begin to learn the language whether or not they actively try just by being exposed to it over time.

This will occur even if the person does not try to learn and is not rewarded for doing so. Of course, the amount of effort they put in is directly related to how close to fluency they get.

Behaviorism and Second Languages

Humans naturally use behaviorism to pick up their native language through imitation as an infant, but the acquisition of a second language depends on a different type of behaviorism. Rather than picking up the language naturally, behaviorism comes into play in foreign language teaching methods. 

Here are some common methodologies that take advantage of behaviorist theories of learning in teaching a second language (Source: Western Governors University

  • Flashcards: Flashcards involve repeating a visual stimulus and associating it with foreign vocabulary or grammar. Seeing the second language words juxtaposed against the native language words over and over again eventually conditions the brain to associate the two. For learning Spanish, I recommend these flashcards (Amazon linked).
  • Call and response: Call and response exercises and even songs are both popular methods for teachers to teach students a second language. Not only do these exercises promote social engagement (which reinforces behavioral learning with social learning) they also take advantage of a person’s natural inclination to imitate.
  • Rote memorization of speech: When students learn a second language past childhood, much of what they learn is through rote memorization of vocabulary, grammatical rules, and other aspects of the language rather than through the subconscious procedural memory that allowed them to learn their native language.
  • Games: Games are a popular way for teachers to teach a second language through behaviorism because many games incorporate positive reinforcement such as prizes. This positive reinforcement is a big part of enhancing the effects of behavioral learning methods. 

Each of the methods listed above incorporates different aspects of behaviorist learning to teach a second language. Once children are past a certain developmental age, it is harder for them to naturally retain a new spoken language, so behaviorist practices can help students retain their second language more easily. 

How Does Behaviorism Differ from Social Learning? 

We’re hardwired from birth to decode facial expression, posture, and tone of voice—and to work collaboratively.

While behaviorism is an important part of teaching students a second language, it’s also important to consider how behaviorism dovetails with social learning. 

After all, many of the reasons that a person might decide to pick up a second language are socially-based—for example, a person may want to learn a second language to travel abroad or work with people from another country. Learning a language is bound up in inherently social goals. 

Behaviorist language methods work best when they are paired together with a social aspect for most student groups. Most people are motivated by social standing and the peer pressure of learning in a group. 

Behavioral Outliers and Social Learning

Shy students may not respond to socially-based learning exercises.

Some personality types such as introverted students or students on the autism spectrum may not respond as positively to socially-based learning exercises.

For these types, social engagement paired with behavioral methods can decrease comfort in learning and retention. These students tend to do better with flashcards and textbooks in language courses than group projects or speeches.

The reason for this learning anomaly is behavioral. Since introverted people and people with autism spectrum disorder are oversensitive to environmental stimuli, the added social stimuli can be exhausting and overwhelming. (Source: Louder Minds)

When teaching a second language, it’s always a good idea to be aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, some are better kinetic learners who pick up things by physical imitation and body engagement, while visual learners will pick up a second language more easily by reading and writing.

All students are different and can achieve their best results with different methods. 

As a teacher for almost 20 years in public schools, I’ve had a lot of experience in differentiation for diverse learners. You can read my article that addresses multiple intelligences here, if you’d like more information.

Reinforcement and Reward in Language Learning

Two of the biggest aspects of behavioral learning that comes into play when teaching a second language are reinforcement and reward. Here’s a breakdown of how these two concepts affect behavioral learning: 


Reinforcement is the behavioral theory behind the advice to try, try again. One of the biggest indicators of success in learning a second language is how often the individual practices the language. The repetition of words and phrases helps reinforce the language in the brain and drives it towards fluency through gradual exposure. 

Something that is considered reinforcement in language learning is anything that would be considered something that could increase the likelihood of a behavior re-occurring. In learning a second language, examples of reinforcement would include the following: 

  • Getting a student to repeat a word multiple times until their pronunciation is correct
  • Periodically testing a group of students to see where they stand in language fluency
  • Reading flashcards over and over until words are memorized

Reinforcement is one of the biggest parts of behaviorist teaching with a second language because students depend on it to both memorize new language and to remember the proper pronunciation of the language each time they speak it.

This is one of the reasons why a foreign language course sometimes feels like a bunch of different ways of repeating the same things over and over. 


In teaching a second language, a reward doesn’t necessarily have to be something tangible like a piece of candy (though many foreign language classes incorporate fun games this way).

A reward is more often praise when a student does well. Just like with babies learning their native language, verbal praise while learning a second language can help stimulate learning. 

Reinforcement Language and Language Learning

Since praise is a big part of incorporating behaviorist teaching methods into teaching a second language, Teachers should learn how to praise students in the right ways.

One way that teachers can achieve this is through reinforcing language. Reinforcing language or positive praise is a key component in acting as a motivator behind behaviorist teaching practices. 

No matter what age people are when they pick up a second language, reinforcing language is a big part of making that praise stick. Here are some tips that teachers should observe to incorporate reinforcing language into the foreign language classroom (Source: Responsive Classroom): 

  • Praise concrete behaviors. Instead of a teacher praising a student by saying, “Good job!” or some other platitude, calling out and praising a specific behavior (such as the pronunciation of a word) is a much more effective method of positive reinforcement.
  • Use a warm tone of voice. Just as parents are affectionate when praising infants as they learn their native language, teachers who are teaching a second language should praise students in a warm and friendly tone of voice to encourage them and keep them motivated in the classroom. This also helps reduce any subconscious negative reinforcement through a tense tone.
  • Address students respectfully. It’s easy to patronize students since teaching puts a teacher in a position of authority over them, but speaking to each student respectfully can help reinforce any positive praise because it encourages respect in return.
  • Find positive things to say about every student. Struggling students often need more motivation than average or above-average students to stay engaged in the learning process. 

The more praise and positive reinforcement are used in teaching a second language, the more motivated students become to learn. 

Thorndike’s Theory of Connectivism

Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) is a famed psychologist for his work in behaviorism. Thorndike’s theory of connectivism is a big part of behaviorist reinforcement.

The basis for this theory is the connection in the brain between a positive stimulus and an act or situation. The theory of connectivism encompasses three laws of learning, which are the following (Sources: Academic Journal of English Language and Education; Simply Psychology): 

  • Law of readiness: The law of readiness involves the learning environment and states that an individual will not learn through behaviorist techniques until they are in a comfortable environment. Without being ready for the lesson both physically and mentally, a student is much less able to retain the information from a lesson.
  • Law of exercise: This is the aspect of behaviorism that states repetition of drills and other learning exercises allows students to learn more efficiently and effectively. The law of exercise forms a large basis of many different teaching techniques.
  • Law of effect: This law declares that the effect between a stimulus and the learning response is enhanced if it is accompanied by a pleasant reinforcement and is decreased if it is enhanced by negative reinforcement. For example, if a student is praised for answering a question in a class they will learn more effectively. Scolding a student causes them to shut down. 

Keeping the laws of Thorndike’s theory of connectivism in mind when applying behaviorist techniques in teaching can help teachers instruct in a second language with more retention and success. 

Review in Behaviorist Learning for Language

One downfall of review practices is that it can be boring.

One of the biggest aspects of behaviorist teaching techniques that can help improve retention in teaching a second language is the concept of review. Review is the repetitive intake of information until it is moved from short-term memory to long-term memory retention. 

The problem with teaching a second language is that if the second language isn’t used frequently, the knowledge picked up about it fades quickly. 

Foreign languages are the ultimate “use it or lose it” skill. There are thousands of people who took at least two years of a foreign language in high school or college and come into adulthood not being able to speak or understand that language if they didn’t continue to study it when their classes were done. 

Here are some tips for how to make review more effective when teaching a second language:

  • Review the information immediately after learning it. A review directly after the information is taken in will help give the student a chance to figure out any immediate questions they have about the material and correct any mispronunciations or other mistakes off the bat before they become an ingrained habit. 
  • Continue to schedule more reviews. Further reviews of the information after the initial review help the information to sink in. This is the part of the review process that helps to move the information from short-term into long-term memory. The more times information is reviewed, the longer the interval of time between reviews students can go without losing information. 
  • Perform quizzes and tests. After language has been moved to long-term memory, continuing to periodically test students on the information helps to highlight any knowledge that they may have missed in previous reviews, and also gives students additional chances to prove their abilities. This can help motivate them to correct mistakes and improve their comprehension.
  • Encourage students to rewrite notes. A good rule of thumb is for students to rewrite their notes at least two times. The first rewrite is good for noting down any questions and for cleaning up notes that were originally unclear. The second rewrite is good for committing the notes to long-term memory. I always had my students keep small spiral notebooks (from Amazon) with them for frequent review any time of the day, such as when waiting at the doctor’s office or sitting on the bus.
  • Encourage students to speak the second language with each other. Social teaching helps to show students which parts of the language information they aren’t familiar with enough to teach someone else. This can show them the parts of the curriculum they need to focus on to improve their fluency. 

Review is a solid behaviorist tactic for helping students learn a foreign language through declarative memory. Without a strong course of long-term review after picking up new information, even in the years after taking a foreign language course, many students of a second language will not retain it later in life. 

Drilling and Behaviorist Language Lessons

Along with review, another behaviorist technique that is often found in classes for a second language are drills. Drills are a way for the information in the second language to be passed on to the student and projected back over and over until the knowledge passes into memory.

Spoken drills are also a good way for foreign language teachers to check for pronunciation or other problems in individual students. 

Teaching ESL at Shane English School

These are a few drills that are often used in teaching a second language (Source: Shane Schools): 

  • Triple drill: Triple drills are call-and-response drills where the teacher calls out a word or phrase and the entire class repeats it back three times. Each time the class repeats the word or phrase back, the teacher listens for any student that is having difficulties so these issues can be corrected on an individual basis.
  • Solo drill: Once students that are struggling have been identified through a group drill, individual drills like having a student repeat back a word or phrase one-on-one can help the instructor narrow down specific pronunciation issues or other difficulties.
  • Pitch drills: One way for instructors to vary up auditory stimuli and increase the connection between the students and the lesson is to incorporate pitch into call-and-response drills. To do this, teachers also specify that they want the word or phrase called back in either a low, high, soft, or loud pitch. This keeps students engaged and improves retention. 

These are just a few of the drills that foreign language teachers utilize to help students retain vocabulary and grammar. Dozens of oral drills exist to help switch things up in the classroom and keep the material fresh for students. 

Much of the studying that students do on their own will be using tools like flashcards or textbooks when it comes to learning a second language, but the imitation involved in class drills is better at tapping into the procedural memory that helps develop native language. This can make the acquisition of secondary languages stronger and more effective. 

The Role of Guided Practice in Second Languages

Even though there are many people capable of learning a second language simply by sitting down with a book about that language and studying it from cover to cover, these learners often can’t compare with those who have engaged in the social study of a second language. 

If the two students are put side by side and the one who read the book technically absorbed more information, why would the social student be better at speaking the language?

For some students, reading the material might impart it better, but for most the social aspect of a spoken course or even immersion classes will be more effective.

So why? 

The answer comes down to behaviorism and how the brain learns language. The reason that social language drills like guided oral practice are so prevalent in foreign language classes is that these methods imitate the way that infants learn their primary language through listening and mimicry. 

While not as effective as these methods are in infancy and between the ages of four and seven, learning language by tapping into procedural memory can help users retain a level of fluency they wouldn’t achieve if they had depended on declarative memory alone through books and audiotapes. 

Classroom Environment and the Law of Readiness

Our hard-wired stress response is designed to gives us the quick burst of heightened alertness and energy needed to perform our best. But stress isn’t all good.

One of the major underpinning theories behind behaviorism is Thorndike’s law of readiness—that is, the belief that a student cannot and will not retain information unless they are in a place where they are mentally and physically able to absorb it.

Problems at home can negatively impact school performance, or second language learning.

In teaching a second language, foreign language teachers and those teaching themselves a second language can take advantage of the law of readiness for optimal learning by making sure that their learning environment is good before they get started. Here are some things students and teachers can do to employ the law of readiness in a behaviorism-based classroom: 

  • Remove distractions. Classrooms that are cluttered or have a blackboard that is crammed full of information can be visually distracting for students, and this can prevent them from focusing during learning. Instead, keep decorations minimal and use bright, energetic colors. Sedated colors like blue may make students sleepy or disinterested.
  • Make sure that students have eaten. Hunger is a serious distraction during classroom activities and a student who is hungry or thirsty will find it difficult to think seriously about anything else, much less retain the information in long-term memory. Before beginning a language lesson, make sure everyone is physically ready and comfortable.
  • Make sure the room is at a comfortable temperature. Freezing rooms and hot rooms are physical stimuli that can pull a student’s mind away from the lesson at hand. If a student constantly has Spanish class in a cold classroom, the class itself will soon become a negative trigger and decrease the student’s motivation simply because they don’t want to be cold.

When contemplating the law of readiness and how it affects a behaviorist classroom, teachers shouldn’t discount the importance of physical stimuli and the environment. Behaviorist teaching techniques depend on environmental cues, and any distractions from those cues will diminish the final impact of the lesson. 

Challenges to Behaviorism in Teaching Language

Most educators agree that using behaviorist techniques in teaching people a second language is effective with the majority of students. This is the reason why behaviorist techniques like call-and-response drills are so prevalent in foreign language courses. 

But there are some challenges to behaviorist theory that people teaching a second language should take into consideration. Like any teaching style, behaviorism is not a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

Here are some of the challenges in using behaviorist theory to teach a second language: 

  • Not all people learn in the same way. This was touched on earlier in the article, but there are at least six different identified ways that people are best able to learn and acquire new knowledge. There are so many different learning styles that educators have to be ready to refine a behaviorist teaching plan for individual students. Not everyone will respond the same.
  • Not all people operate at the same cognitive level. Some students will have cognitive difficulties in absorbing new languages such as auditory processing disorder or a general slowness. Students with difficulties must be identified quickly and given remedial help to keep them on the same pace as the rest of the class.
  • Behaviorism is not open-ended learning. This makes language learned through behaviorism more difficult to use in practical application. A student who can do call-and-response drills in Spanish perfectly may find themselves flailing when they are in Madrid and don’t have any practical knowledge of the language. 

Even though behaviorism is one of the most effective teaching methodologies for acquiring or teaching a second language, it still has its limitations.

Though behaviorist teaching is quite effective for most, not all people learn the same.

Each person will pick up a second language in a slightly different way depending on how they think. 

Final Talking Point on Teaching a Second Language Through Behaviorism

Behaviorism isn’t a good method for teaching hard data courses like math and science that require comprehensive knowledge, but it is perfect for learning a second language, especially in the early stages.

Behaviorist techniques draw on the same psychological principles for memory retention that the human brain falls into as part of its natural state. 

Through repetition and conditioning, using behaviorist methods can increase the amount of language a person can retain even after they are finished with a second language course. However, it’s important to keep in mind that not all learners learn the same way and it’s wise to include other methods, too.

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, department leader at various levels and organizations, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

Recent Posts