How do we humans develop language? An approach from the Relational Frame Theory

What is Relational Frame Theory (RFT)?


RFT is a behavior-analytic account of human language and cognition. It is fundamentally similar to Skinner’s account, and is distinct from most cognitive and linguistic approaches to language, in that ‘‘it approaches verbal events as activities not products’’ (Hayes, Fox, et al., 2001, p. 22). It is fundamentally different from Skinner’s account in how it defines and accounts for those verbal events and activities.

The wide range of topics being addressed and methods being used in RFT may make the field of behavior analysis somewhat more appealing to those who long ago deemed behaviorism ‘‘dead’’ and irrelevant. Hopefully, the intense debate and controversy inspired by RFT will serve to move the field forward and contribute to an increased behavioral understanding of the complexities and importance of human language. Relational Frame Theory: An Overview of the Controversy, Amy C. Gross and Eric J. Fox, Western Michigan University


We have chosen to bring up RFT in this article since even if it has been known for more than 20 years it is a field within language development that needs more research. The reason why it has not been researched more seem to be it is close to a philosophical part of science rooted in functional contextualism.

It is rooted in functional contextualism, a philosophy of science with a focus on the study of an act or event within a particular context (See Hayes, 1993). Functional contextualists believe that there are no unshakable, universal truths; instead, they value what is useful and practical. The basic unit of RFT is the relational frame, which is the “action of framing events relationally” (Hayes, Fox, et al., 2001, p. 43). The idea of a “frame” is like a picture frame in that relational responding can involve any sort of events, just as a frame can hold any picture. Brian Thompson, psychologist resident in Portland, Oregon

Human language and cognition are the dependent parts of relational frames. Our thoughts, reasoning, speaking with meaning, or listening with understanding, we are deriving relations among events — among words and events, words and words, events and events.


There are three main properties of this kind of relational learning:

  • First, such relations show mutual entailment or “bidirectionality.” If a person learns that A relates in a particular way to B in a context, then this must entail some kind of relation between B and A in that context. For example, if a person is taught that hot is the same as boiling, that person will derive that boiling is the same as hot.
  • Second, such relations show combinatorial entailment: if a person learns in a particular context that A relates in a particular way to B, and B relates in a particular way to C, then this must entail some kind of mutual relation between A and C in that context. For example, if by attribution a nickel is smaller than a dime and a dime is smaller than a quarter, then it will be derived that a quarter is bigger than a nickel and a nickel is smaller than a quarter.
  • Finally, such relations enable a transformation of stimulus functions among related stimuli. If you need to buy candy and a dime is known to be valuable, it will be derived that a nickel will be less valuable and a quarter will be more valuable, without necessarily directly purchasing candy with nickels and quarters.

Source: Hayes, S.C.; Barnes-Holmes, D. & Roche, B. (Eds.). (2001). Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Plenum Press.

Relational Learning In Action

From eMindSet workshops

Looking forward to hear from you,

Christer Edman & Veronica Rebora


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