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Child-directed speech is optimized for syntax-free semantic inference


You, Guanghao; Bickel, Balthasar; Daum, Moritz M; Stoll, Sabine (2021). Child-directed speech is optimized for syntax-free semantic inference. Scientific Reports, 11(1):16527.

Abstract

The way infants learn language is a highly complex adaptive behavior. This behavior chiefly relies on the ability to extract information from the speech they hear and combine it with information from the external environment. Most theories assume that this ability critically hinges on the recognition of at least some syntactic structure. Here, we show that child-directed speech allows for semantic inference without relying on explicit structural information. We simulate the process of semantic inference with machine learning applied to large text collections of two different types of speech, child-directed speech versus adult-directed speech. Taking the core meaning of causality as a test case, we find that in child-directed speech causal meaning can be successfully inferred from simple co-occurrences of neighboring words. By contrast, semantic inference in adult-directed speech fundamentally requires additional access to syntactic structure. These results suggest that child-directed speech is ideally shaped for a learner who has not yet mastered syntactic structure.

Abstract

The way infants learn language is a highly complex adaptive behavior. This behavior chiefly relies on the ability to extract information from the speech they hear and combine it with information from the external environment. Most theories assume that this ability critically hinges on the recognition of at least some syntactic structure. Here, we show that child-directed speech allows for semantic inference without relying on explicit structural information. We simulate the process of semantic inference with machine learning applied to large text collections of two different types of speech, child-directed speech versus adult-directed speech. Taking the core meaning of causality as a test case, we find that in child-directed speech causal meaning can be successfully inferred from simple co-occurrences of neighboring words. By contrast, semantic inference in adult-directed speech fundamentally requires additional access to syntactic structure. These results suggest that child-directed speech is ideally shaped for a learner who has not yet mastered syntactic structure.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Institute of Psychology
06 Faculty of Arts > Department of Comparative Language Science
06 Faculty of Arts > Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development
06 Faculty of Arts > Zurich Center for Linguistics
Special Collections > NCCR Evolving Language
Special Collections > Centers of Competence > Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Language Evolution
06 Faculty of Arts > Linguistic Research Infrastructure (LiRI)
Dewey Decimal Classification:490 Other languages
890 Other literatures
410 Linguistics
Scopus Subject Areas:Health Sciences > Multidisciplinary
Uncontrolled Keywords:child-directed speech, first language acquisition, semantic inference, causative
Language:English
Date:16 August 2021
Deposited On:08 Sep 2021 13:49
Last Modified:13 Apr 2022 15:09
Publisher:Nature Publishing Group
ISSN:2045-2322
OA Status:Gold
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-95392-x
Project Information:
  • : FunderSNSF
  • : Grant ID51NF40_180888
  • : Project TitleNCCR Evolving Language (phase I)
  • : FunderSNSF
  • : Grant ID51NF40_180888
  • : Project TitleNCCR Evolving Language (phase I)
  • : FunderSNSF
  • : Grant ID51NF40_180888
  • : Project TitleNCCR Evolving Language (phase I)
  • : FunderFP7
  • : Grant ID615988
  • : Project TitleAcquisition processes in maximally diverse languages: Min(d)ing the ambient language
  • Content: Published Version
  • Language: English
  • Licence: Creative Commons: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)