Language is shaped by brain’s desire for clarity and ease

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Congratulations to Masha Fedzechkina on her article on a bias for efficient information transfer during language learning that has just appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (link to article).

Here’s some news coverage

More to come soon.

Errata: We are sorry that in our paper we forgot to acknowledge the help of three undergraduate research assistants, Andy Wood, Irene Minkina, and Cassandra Donatelli, in preparing the video animations used during our artificial language learning task.

CogSci 2011 papers uploaded

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In case, there’s interest, have a look at the papers to be presented at this year’s Cognitive Science meeting in Boston (July, 20th-23rd). HLP lab will be represented by two talks and four posters. The two talks will presenting work employing artificial language learning to address questions about typological generalizations:

  • Masha Fedzechkina(BCS, University of Rochester) will present evidence that language learners are biased to reduced the uncertainty in the mapping from form to meaning. Her work is comparing the acquisition of miniature languages with and without case-marking in terms of to what extent learners tend to regularize or even fix variable word orders for these two types of languages (Fedzechkina, Jaeger, & Newport, 2011). Together with other recent work (e.g. by Newport, by Culbertson), this work provides evidence that language learners deviate from the input provided to them in a predictable manner. In this case, we designed the experiment to directly test the functionalist claim that language learners are biases towards acquiring languages that support communication (cf. Bates and MacWhinney’s early work).
  • Hal Tily (BCS, MIT) will present work employing a novel web-based artificial language learning paradigm, in which hundreds of participants can be run within a matter of a few days. Using this paradigm, we first replicated and extended a well-known study on determiner learning (Hudson Kam and Newport, 2004) and then investigate to what extent cross-linguistically observed quantitative patterns in argument and determiner order are replicated by language learners. We discuss how this paradigm will facilitate further tests of typological generalizations (Tily, Frank, & Jaeger, 2011).
Two poster presentations will be given on rapid and long-term adaptation to changes in syntactic distributions: Read the rest of this entry »

Congratulations: LSA stipends

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Congratulations to Dave Kleinschmidt and Masha Fedzechkina for being awarded LSA stipends to attend the Linguistics Society of America’s 2011 Summer Institute at UC Boulder!

Word order and case marking in language acquisition and processing (LSA poster and CogSci paper)

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We presented the results of our artificial language learning study on the use of case-marking and word order as cues in processing and learning at the LSA annual meeting. This is work done with Florian Jaeger and Elissa Newport. We investigated whether functional pressures (e.g., ambiguity reduction) operate during language acquisition, biasing learners to (subtly) deviate from the input they receive. Our results suggest that language learners indeed have a bias to reduce uncertainty (or ambiguity) in the input language: The learners are more likely to fix the word order if a language does not have case. See the image below for the details of the study or download the poster as a pdf here. Feedback welcome!

Update 11/29/11: This work was published in the 2011 CogSci Proceedings as


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Judith Degen, Masha Fedzechkina and I just came back from Ohio State’s linguistics departments, where we had a great time presenting and discussing our work. Masha gave her first talk ever, presenting her work within the artificial language learning paradigm on functional biases on acquisition (an extension of her LSA poster, soon to be posted here). Judith gave a wonderful guest lecture for Shari Speer’s introduction to psycholinguistics. She talked about scalar implicature and her work with Mike Tanenhaus on this topic. Since even I got it (and I am well-known to be pragmatically challenged), I can highly recommend her slides on scalar implicature processing (beware it’s a monster file – click and go grab a coffee).

Thanks to everyone there for great and insightful conversations and for organizing this. I was particularly excited to hear about potential applications of Uniform Information Density to natural language generation (please keep me posted!). Oh, and extra big thanks to Judith Tonhauser and her fat white cat.

HLP Lab at the LSA and congratulations to Judith Degen and Masha Fedzechkina

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Congratulations to Judith Degen and Masha Fedzechkina for having their two abstracts be among only twelve selected to be “media-worthy” by LSA reviewers:

  • Degen, J. and Jaeger, T. F. 2011.  Speakers sacrifice some (of the) precision in conveyed meaning to accommodate robust communication. Talk to be presented at the 2011 Meeting of the LSA.
    • Session: Pragmatics II  31
    • Room: Le Batea
    • Time: Friday 2pm

The process of encoding an intended meaning into a linguistic utterance is well-known to be affected by production pressures. We present corpus data suggesting that the choice between even two seemingly non-meaning-equivalent forms as in (1a) and (1b) can be affected by speakers’ preference to distribute information uniformly across the linguistic signal (Uniform Information Density (UID), Jaeger 2006). This suggests that even when two forms do not encode the same (but a similar enough) message, speakers may sacrifice precision in meaning for increased processing efficiency.

(1a) Alex ate some chard.
(1b) Alex ate some of the chard

  • Fedzechkina, M., Jaeger. T. F. , and Newport, E. 2011. Word order and case marking in language acquisition and processing. Poster to be presented at the 2011 Meeting of the LSA.
    • Session: Language Acquisition/Psycholinguistics/Syntax
    • Room: Grand Ballroom Foyer
    • Time: 9:00 – 10:30 AM.

To understand a sentence, comprehenders must identify its actor and patient. In principle, these relationships can be signaled using a single cue, but most languages employ several redundant cues, including word order and case marking. In artificial language learning experiments we investigate word order and case as cues in processing and learning. In languages without case marking, learners regularize word order; but when case marking is present, it is favored and limits word order regularization. Case-marking comes with a disadvantage: it is more complex to acquire. But the present results suggest that this may be outweighed by clarity for processing.

Read the rest of this entry »