Ecoic behaviour is a concept that arises from Skinner’s work Verbal behaviour (1957), where he explains how imitation is essential for language acquisition.

Next we will see what is eco-behaviour and how it is studied in psychology .

The beginnings of speech development in childhood

When children are young, their oral language is basically made up of innate sounds and babbling typical of their mother tongue

It is the people around them (especially the parents) who shape the child’s vocal productions, through successive approaches. This means reinforcing the sounds that resemble more and more the target word, until it is the one the child learns to say, and which ends up being incorporated into his verbal repertoire.

Thus, thanks to the environment and as they grow, their vocabulary is richer and more varied.

Language can also be considered a behavior , as we will see later. So-called operant conditioning, which was introduced by Skinner, consists of a form of teaching by which a subject is more likely to repeat forms of behavior that carry positive consequences and less likely to repeat those that carry negative consequences.

This type of conditioning is the basis for many behaviors, including eco-behaviour.

What is eco-behaviour?

Echoic behaviour is a verbal behaviour (e.g. to utter a word), which is emitted in the presence of a vocal stimulus and which is socially reinforced by its sound similarity . Ecoico means belonging to or relative to the echo, that is, the sound.

So, for example, saying “pen” when someone says “pen” is reinforced with “very good” (or another word that acts as a reinforcer). In simpler words, it would be what we typically know as “repeat”.


To understand a bit more how this type of behaviour is shaped , let’s explain the sequence that would be used.

First there would be a discriminative stimulus, which is always sound (e.g. “say”); then there would be the vocal response (e.g. “pen”) and finally the social reinforcer (e.g. “very good”, a smile, etc.).

Echoic behavior and verbal stimuli share what is known as point-to-point correspondence (a formal similarity).

The verbal discriminations mentioned (“say coin”) would in turn act as a verbal command that when executed (when the child says “coin”), will be reinforced and will increase the likelihood that the child will correctly reproduce the word in the future.

This sequence we have mentioned would be repeated, and if the vocal response always occurs after the discriminative stimulus, then it is said that the behavior is under the control of verbal stimuli . When this structure is trained and maintained over time, the child ends up acquiring the corresponding words and incorporating them into his repertoire.

How can we encourage the learning of this type of behaviour?

In educational practice, to teach vocabulary to a child and empower his language, we can use the discriminating “di”, attached to the word we want to teach; for example “di coin”.

Another example would be when, in learning a new language, the instructor says (e.g.) “parsimonious” and then adds “can you tell?”, to induce ecoic behavior. In other words, verbal discriminations can also be questions.

Eco-behaviours are maintained by social reinforcement (generalised and conditioned), and thus, can be generalised to different moments and contexts with due training . In this way, the child can manage to reproduce new sounds (words) presented to him by adults.

Evolution towards pathology: echolalia

However, there may be cases in which the ecologic behavior is not functional and becomes pathological: these are the so-called ecolalias. These appear when the child systematically repeats a word or fragment of the speech of the listener .

Sometimes echolalias can be delayed, when they appear minutes, hours, days or even weeks after they have been heard. Echolalias are often associated with autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disabilities. It is often a form of self-stimulation.

On the other hand, children can sometimes self-reinforce their own vocal behaviors by producing sounds that they have heard in other people’s speech.

Changing intonation can be the reinforcing property for the child , not so much the word itself, but some other special aspect of the speaker. In this case, it would not be a question of strictly ecological or functional behaviours.

Behavior modification programs

Eco-behaviour is very much present in behaviour modification programmes for specific groups, such as children with intellectual disabilities and/or autism spectrum disorders, mentioned above. This type of programme includes a wide variety of behaviours to be implemented, including language.

Specifically in this type of child, language stimulation is a primary objective, since it enables the development of other learning.

The programs are based on operant conditioning , and for the stimulation of the language molding is used; thus, at the beginning vocabulary that approximates words will be reinforced. At the beginning, they do not necessarily have to be words; they can be syllables, and especially if the child does not yet have language, for example “cam” to end up saying “truck”.

As these are intensive programmes, the child will progressively (always according to his/her characteristics), will make sounds that are more and more similar to the words we are trying to teach him/her .

As said, the reinforcement of the child’s verbal behaviors will enable more complex behaviors, as well as the fact that he or she can communicate more functionally and can express emotions, desires, states, etc.

Bibliographic references:

  • B. F., Skinner (1981). Verbal behaviour. Mexico: Editorial Trillas México.
  • Pérez, V., Guitérrez, M., Gracía, A., and Gómez, J.(2017). Basic psychological processes: a functional analysis. Madrid (Spain): UNED.