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Universität Duisburg-Essen Wintersemester 2006/07 PS/HS Language, meaning and use Dozent: Prof. R. Hickey. Meaning acquisition. Anna Adaszynski, Hans-Joachim Faust, Marius Finnern, Anastasia Nikolaeva, Nicole Reif, Sarah Thiele. The Acquisition of Grammar.

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meaning acquisition

Universität Duisburg-Essen

Wintersemester 2006/07

PS/HS Language, meaning and use

Dozent: Prof. R. Hickey

Meaning acquisition

Anna Adaszynski, Hans-Joachim Faust,

Marius Finnern, Anastasia Nikolaeva,

Nicole Reif, Sarah Thiele

the acquisition of grammar
The Acquisition of Grammar
  • Grammatical structure is specific to language as a system of representation and communication.
  • The acquisition of grammar can not be studied fruitfully without taking into account cognitive development.
cognitive development
Cognitive Development
  • All human beings are supposed to make sense of the physical and social environment they live in by universal processes of reasoning in universal structures of thought.
  • Though speed and outcome may vary according to socio-cultural factors, processes and structures are fundamentally the same.
Humans make sense of the world of objects and people, i.e. their reasoning patterns in systems of a logic of actions and thinking, systems that can be described as abstract structures.
  • There are progressive changes in the relation between the knowing subject and the object of his knowledge though the construction of structural fragments, then differentiations and integration into increasingly varied and more powerful systems by means of abstraction.
  • Besides, the production and the comprehension of utterances is interacting with many kinds of knowledge, as well as with beliefs and emotions.
the semantic bootstrapping hypothesis 1
The Semantic Bootstrapping Hypothesis (1)
  • Definition: Semantic bootstrapping in linguistics refers to the hypothesis that children utilize conceptual knowledge to create grammatical categories when acquiring their first language.

Thus, for example, categories like "type of object/person" maps directly onto the linguistic category "noun", category like "action" onto "verb", etc. This will get children started on their way to acquiring parts of speech, which later can be supplemented by other linguistic information.

what does steven pinker think of semantic bootstrapping
What does Steven Pinker think of “semantic bootstrapping”?
  • Grammitical entities do not have semantic definition in adult grammars, but maybe in parent-child discourse.
  • When speaking to infants, parents refer to people and physical objects using nouns, they refer to physical actions using verbs and so on. This also could help children to percept grammatical relations: Physical object and action instead of “nounhood” or “verbhood”.
Pinker: The categorization of words can be inferred from their semantic properties, and their grammatical relations can be inferred from the semantic relation in the event witnessed.
  • Grimshaw/Macnamara: Once a basis of semantically induced rules is in place, the child is able to learn the semantically neutral items because of their appearance within the structure of the sentence.
Pinker and his Semantic Bootstrapping Hypothesis do not claim that children allow semantically based analyses to override distributional analysy.
  • In fact the SBH claims that children have to give priority to distributionally based analyses.

But how do they know which distributional contexts are relevant?

Universal correlation

  • Steven Pinker argues that there exist symbols with universal properties and this hypothesis has to be tanslated ino the fact that certain phenomena tend to be correlated with one another across languages.
Example: the concept of “Subject”
  • the agentive argument of active action predicates
  • the nounphrase position that is usually the leftmost nominal phrase daughter of S
  • the argument of an embedded complement that is controlled by the matrix predicate
  • the function that objects assume during passivization

These rules are universal correlated. The symbols labeled “Subject” are in some sense of the same psychological kind.

The SBH amounts to the claim that
  • the child uses phenomenon
  • to label certain entities as “Subjects” in the first rules he or she coins
  • he or she expects these entities in those rules to enter phenomena
  • these entities are “Subjects” without further learning
  • the child fixes the parameters of those phenomena
Pinker: The child is spared from having to record all perceptible properties and correlations involving the input elements. Just exploitation of formal and substantive linguistic univerals to focus on the learning process upon those properties. (inductive)
  • Chomsky: The child exploits the “rich deductive structure” inherent in the family resamblance correlation defining substantive universals, and at the very start he or she uses the semantically transparant members of the family as the first “premises” of the duduction.
Other symbols

It is necessary to show that

  • the symbol enters into a set of phenomena
  • the phenomena must include some notion which is available o the child
  • this notion has to be expressed in a question
  • If that is the case the SBH can be applied to the problem of how rules incorporating that symbol are first acquired: the child can use the phenomenon that includes the perceptually available notion as the inductive basis for the symbol in question.
Grimshaw: Linguists often use descreptive ways of analysing he category membership of a word, although they know that the formal way is much better to do so. But in fact they use semantic notions as their first hypothesis and linguists seldom have to recategorize sets of words after examining oher phenomena.
  • Pinker: It is not unreasonable to assume that also children can safely begin by categorizing words in this way.
implications for the semantic bootstrapping hypothesis 2
Implications for the Semantic Bootstrapping Hypothesis (2)
  • The Semantic bootstrapping hypothesis contains that children utilize conceptual knowledge to create grammatical categories when acquiring their first language.
  • Thus, for example, categories like "type of object/person" maps directly onto the linguistic category "noun", category like "action" onto "verb", etc.
  • This will get children started on their way to acquiring parts of speech, which later can be supplemented by other linguistic information.
  • The hypothesis received some support from the experiments that showed that three- to five-year-olds do, in fact, generally use nouns for things and verbs for actions more often than adults do.
  • Syntactic bootstrapping and learning from distributional patterns of the language have also been proposed as a way for children to acquire word-classes.
syntax is correlated with semantics but is not reducible to semantics
  • Question: How do children use perceptual input (sounds and situations) to hypothesize grammatical structures at the outset of the language acquisition process?


  • Children innately expect syntax and semantics as correlated.
  • they can derive the semantic representation by nongrammatical means and can thereby do a preliminary syntactic analysis of the first parental utterances they process.
 with some grammatical rules, children are now able to handle sentences violating these correlations between syntax and semantics (passives, deverbal nouns), because of their experiences in analysing.

 In situations where structures violate general rules the child needs more information either from the situational context or from the semantic knowledge.

  • they become relaxed in the input speech they process.
  • they can do this by classifying these words in terms of their distribution within the grammatical structure.
  • they can now analyse these structures.
Semantic Bootstrapping Hypothesis can be helpful in explaining how language acquisition gets started.
  • Problems:
    • Assumption: Children can accurately encode the meaning of a sentence an adult says.
    • If the correlations between syntax and semantics are not universal: How do children learn languages that violate these correlations?
    • If the correlations are only probabilistic, we need to assume either, that parents filter the noncorrelated structures (passives, deverbal nouns), or that children can filter them using some independent criterions.
semantic bootstrapping hypothesis
Semantic bootstrapping hypothesis
  • This figure shows how the flow and understanding of information in the language acquisition process is understood to take place.
Whereas the first picture needs language input to be modified to the child’s understanding of the situation, the 2nd figure holds an explanation for children understanding sentences which are not filtered for their understanding (i. e. leaving passives out). It makes use of the assumption that children are capable of using categories and labelling for constructing meaning and that they thus can rely on acquired structures to encode and analyze utterances.
learning by instinct
Learning by Instinct
  • Lots of people think of instinct and learning as two separate things and even alternatives.
  • Different studies have shown that this is not right There cannot be made a sharp distinction between instinct and learning (in human AND in animal behaviour!)
 Process of learning is often controlled by instinct

“pre-programmed” genetically

  • Learning by instinct appears at all levels of mental complexity.
ethnology and behaviourist psychology
Ethnology and Behaviourist Psychology


  • E. Is the study of instinct
  • Most animal behaviour is controlled by four basic factors:
    • Sign stimuli(instinctively recognized things)
    • Motor programs(innate responses to these things)
    • Drive(controlling motivational impulses)
    • Imprinting(a restricted and seemingly aberrant form of learning)
  • Geese build their nests on the ground. When one goose knocks an egg out of her nest, a stereotype and innate behaviour appears. The animal fixes its eyes on the lost egg, stands up and rolls it back where it belongs.
  • Sign stimuli: Convex features that trigger the behaviour
  • Motor program: The egg rolling response
  • Drive: The drive to protect its eggs appears two weeks before the goose lays eggs and persists two weeks after the eggs hatch.
  • Imprinting: Goslings follow every object that makes a “kum-kum” call
Classical Conditioning:
    • Ivan Pavlov
    • Experiments with a dog
    • Dog learned, that he got food, when a bell rang
  • Operant Conditioning:
    • Animals learn as a result of trial-and-error experimentation  they behave in a special way because they want to obtain a reward or avoid punishment.
Both positions (Ethnology and Behaviourist Psychology ) cannot stand alone
  • instinct and learning are strongly connected
  • Animals can make certain associations easier or more difficult in different situations.

 They are innately influenced to learn some things better than others.


  • Rats easily learn to identify food that makes them ill because of a smell, but not because of visually or auditory cues.
an example of instinctive learning bees
An example of instinctive learning: Bees
  • Bees are collecting

nectar and pollen.

  • Their instinct lets them

recognise flowerlike objects,

but they have to learn which of these objects can give them food

  • At first the bees learn the smell of flower, then the colour and after that the shapes and colour patterns.
  • The bees prefer some smells, colours, shapes and colour patterns.
The bees have a hierarchical structure in their mind.
  • The smell is most important!

 Refers to the natural conditions: The smell of a flower is nearly constant, the colour or shape can change in different light conditions.

  • Another important organizational element is the time of day each flower provides nectar.

These facts show that honey bees learn different things about flowers and store them in a hierarchical order.

The things that they learn and the time they need for it are innate characteristics.

learning about enemies
Learning about Enemies
  • Animals need to learn how to recognize and respond to various kinds of predators and enemies
  • Nesting birds for example must learn to distinguish harmless birds from birds which hunt for eggs and chicks
  • When nesting birds detect nest predators, they attack en masse.

→ this phenomenon is known as “mobbing”

  • Birds need to learn whom to mob and whom to ignore
  • This process of learning is innately guided
(1)Between the cages there is a rotable, four-chambered box. Each bird can see only one chamber of the box,but it can also see into the other bird´s cage.

(2)Each bird is shown a harmless species without showing any interest.

(3)A is shown a predator and B is shown a harmless one: A tries to chase it away and gives the characteristic “mobbing call”.

(4)B watches A and then joins in the mobbing behavior.It has learned to mob a harmless species.

(5)When both birds are shown the harmless bird B teaches A to mob it as well.

  • → This aversion was passed on from generation to generation
song learning in birds
Song Learning in Birds
  • All birds have a repertoire of one or two dozen calls that are innately produced and recognized
  • Several kinds of birds also have more complex vocal patterns that must to some extent be learned from adults of the same species
process of song learning
Process of Song Learning

A bird kept in auditory isolation begins to experiment with song notes by the time it is about a month old

→ This period of experimentation is known as subsong

→The chick is born with a basic innate song, which it learns to elaborate when it raised in the wild

  • The time in which the drive to learn is high is called the sensitive period ( before it is about 7 weeks old)
speech learning in humans
Speech Learning in Humans
  • Human infants innately recognize most consonant sounds that are characteristic of human speech, including consonants not present in the language they normally hear
  • The innate ability to identify sign stimuli present in consonants confers several advantages:
      • It allows the infant to ignore a world full of irrelevant auditory stimuli in order to focus on speech sounds.
      • It allows the infant to decode the many layers of meaning in the complex and variable sound of speech
      • It provides an internal standard for the child to use in judging and shaping speech sounds
language and experience
Language and Experience
  • To know a language is to know the relations between sounds and their meanings
  • These relations are acquired from specific experience and some interpretive context, paired with speech events
  • Problem: The acquisition of language is based on only partial and sometimes impoverished relevant experience!
problems from learning from observation
Problems from learning from observation:
  • Too many encodings:

When the mother points to a cat saying “cat”, the child might relate the word “cat” with the meaning animal, fur, cute or tail.

  • False experiences:

When a child is inspecting his mother stroking the cat and talking of the grandmother’s visit at the same time, this might create a false pairing.

  • Abstract meanings:

Many words have no direct connection with sensory-perceptual experience (fun, good) or encode unobservable relations (similar, brother), properties (very, the) or grammatical functions (of, to).

different experience different meanings
Different experience, different meanings?
  • Experiments withblind children hint at a different interpretation of the words look and touch
  • Look is more like “apprehend” or “explore” to the blind child (manipulate, feel all over)
  • Touch is rather interpreted as “contact” (bang, tap)
responses of sighted but blindfolded children
Responses of sighted, but blindfolded children
  • Touch is interpreted as simple manual contact
  • Look seems to be interpreted as commands to do something visual (they oriented their heads in the direction indicated by the command)
  • First Language AcquisitionThe Essential ReadingsEdited by Barbara C. Lust and Claire Foley2004