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Cognitive Models of Language and Beyond

Assignments Week 2: Productive Units and Language Acquisition

Hielke Prins, 6359973


1. The paper tries to make as few assumptions about the children's grammar as possible by
adopting data-oriented pasing (DOP) as the underlying mechanism. Tree substitution grammars
(TSG) as used within DOP, allow for productive units of arbitrary size and varying complexity
represented by subtrees with various depths and substitution nodes.
As a generalization over context-free grammars (CFG), TSG's still allow rule-like
representations to be formed (VP → V NP) but it does not enforce them beforehand to be
syntactically correct nor completely abstract as they are derived from examples by taking all
possibilities in account: grammatically correct and incorrect, concrete fixed phrases (“how do
you know”) as well as more abstract discontiguous ones (“I V to VP-INF”).
Crucially, DOP determines the likelihood of representations from actual usage reflected by
annotated corpora. Applying this approach on corpora of utterances collected during early
language acquisition, enables the authors to derive conclusions about the nature of the
productive units in various stages on an empirical base. Results support an increase of
abstraction (relative number of variables compared to the length of a sentence) with age.
Despite the aim to be theory neutral, adopting a specific model from the DOP framework means
making assumptions on how (in binary trees) and how many (in principle all) of the
representations are stored. The estimator determines how the probabilities of building blocks
are computed. Push-n-pull includes a bias towards a specific size of subtrees. Furthermore
simple versions of DOP require the syntactical categories to be predefined and the corpus to be
annotated by hand.
2. Although minor compared to an innate universal grammar (UG), annotating a corpus
beforehand (by adult experts) to some extend supports the continuity assumption. After all,
there is no reason children should use the same constructs and labels as annotators do. Children
do not learn a language from labeled sentences. Unsupervised DOP models (U-DOP) tackle this
by allowing for all possible tree structures while using a derivation rule to decide which one is
the most plausible.
The shortest derivation rule used in the paper by Bod (2009) has shortcomings, as discussed in
the previous assignment. However, these could be addressed by using frequencies or a different
estimator and it correctly predicts some of the characteristic phenomena known from the
language acquisition process, such as auxiliary fronting, without any presupposed mechanisms
other then the notion of trees and recursion. It is noted that this mechanism is general enough to
account for aspects of processing other perceptual modalities.
Further weakening of the assumptions might prove to be difficult without losing simplicity and
explanatory power. One can imagine dropping the notion of trees as a presentation or flattening
them into graphs, lists or less formal structures. This is done by pure constructionists and in
production rules for skill-learning within cognitive architectures.

At a certain point however cognitive plausibility might require stronger instead of weaker
assumptions as existing neurological and cognitive constraints need to be incorporated.
Connectionists for example exchange the tree formalization for a mathematically much more
complex one.
The bias towards smaller subtrees already might be such a required stronger assumption that is
covered by an individual measure of memory capacity. An actual influence of competence and a
computationally as well as cognitively plausible constraint on infinite recursion. As will become
clear in Question 3, labeled trees and syntactical categories or a way to acquire them might be
another one.
3. To produce the wh-question “Who did he say you stole from?” the corpus first of all should
include subtrees to account for all the words in the sentence. Since we are asked to keep the
corpus of sentences as small and as simple as possible, preferably in multi-word constructions
that already account for larger parts of the sentence.
The challenge is to account for the unusual word order in typical wh-questions in combination
with the three different verb conjugations in this complex one. The verb “say” in this
construction of a past tense using “did” does itself not conjugate to the past. This makes the
incorrect “* Who did he said you stole from?” actually more natural to some foreigners learning
English. Other languages sometimes allow for an auxiliary construction but they conjugate the
main verb, not the auxiliary. In Dutch for example, “Van wie zei hij dat jij gestolen hebt?”
without an auxiliary and “Van wie heeft hij gezegd dat je gestolen hebt?” including one.
Corpora with only one sentence will mostly be ungrammatical. Although that does not
necessarily make them completely implausible during language acquisition:

*From who did he say you stole? From whom did he say you stole?
*Did he say you stole from who? Did he say you stole from Who1
Complex reordering of the words in the sentence however also makes the derivation longer
because it will require smaller subtrees to be combined in multiple steps. A natural corpus will
thus contain at least two different sentences.

1a. Who did he kiss? 2a. He did say you stole from him
1b. They say you stole from him 2b. Who has his wallet?
The first one captures most of the underlying regularity of the wh-question with auxiliary
conjugation and main verb (“WH did he INF”). Although U-DOP will not necessarily derive a
representation that captures this regularity. Shortest derivation will derive the sentence from the
parts “Who did he” and “say you stole from him” but can do so in different ways.
Nevertheless their subtrees might even in a larger corpus occur often enough to be isolated in
this way, for other reasons then the grammatical regularity that explains the difference between
“who did he say” and “*who did he said”. DOP and especially unlabeled U-DOP with shortest
derivation is only sensitive for the regularity and otherwise ignorant to grammaticality. It is
considered to be implicitly incorporated in subtrees that capture the regularity.
In the second corpus, sentence 2a is a plausible answer to questions like in “What did he say?”
but “He said you stole from him” is probably preferred. The above examples deliberately let
1 “Who Lang is een chinees”, old Dutch word pun (oral tradition)

sentences with “he said” out of the corpus to prevent deriving “*Who did he said you stole
from?”. Considering the confusion of some non-native speakers that is probably an implausible
assumption. Note however that “did” can also rhetorically be used to put stress (eg. in an
interrogation). The length of the derivation by substitution is longer then for the sentences the
first corpus.