The acquisition of noun classes: Phonology wins

Annie Gagliardi, Jeffrey Lidz. (2014). Statistical Insensitivity in the Acquisition of Tsez Noun Classes. Language. PDF.

Annie Gagliardi. Source: University of Maryland

This article looks “at the acquisition of noun classes, a problem that allows us to differentiate between the input, or the information available to a learner in the environment, and the intake, the information that a learner makes use of in constructing a grammar” . . . “In the acquisition of Tsez noun classes we find that input and intake do differ. While Tsez-acquiring children appear to make use of both noun-external and noun-internal distributional information, their use of noun-internal distributional information is selective. Instead of using semantic cues, which both adults and statistical models find to be the most reliable information, children use less reliable phonological information.”

Oxford Bibliographies: Classifiers and noun classes (Alexandra Aikhenvald). Gender (Jenny Audring). The Tsez language.
ScienceDaily: Sound trumps meaning in first language learning.

Visualizing genes’ role in learning and memory

From Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence

“MIT bioengineers have adapted MRI to visualize gene activity inside the brains of living animals.Tracking these genes with MRI would enable scientists to learn more about how the genes control processes such as forming memories and learning new skills, says Alan Jasanoff, an MIT associate professor of biological engineering and leader of the research team.”

“The dream of molecular imaging is to provide information about the biology of intact organisms, at the molecule level,” says Jasanoff, who is also an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “The goal is to not have to chop up the brain, but instead to actually see things that are happening inside.”

‘What if’ is a waste of time?

Richard Evans in the Guardian

Counterfactuals “are often claimed to open up the past by demonstrating the myriad possibilities, thus freeing history from the straitjacket of determinism and restoring agency to the people. But in fact they imprison the past in an even tighter web: one tiny change in the timeline – Archduke Franz Ferdinand escapes assassination in Sarajevo, the British cabinet decides not to enter the war – leads inevitably to a whole series of much larger changes, sometimes stretching over decades almost up to the present day. Yet this ignores, of course, an infinite number of chances that might have deflected the predicted course of events along the way – Franz Ferdinand might have fallen victim to another assassin’s bullet, or died in a hunting accident; Britain might have entered the war later on; the US might have come into the conflict on the side of the French; Austria-Hungary might have collapsed in the face of nationalist revolts; and so on.”

See also: What if . . . ? Konstanz Collaborative Research Group.

A plea for the improbable: Alan Hájek

A plea for the improbable

Source: University of Groningen

“Much of my philosophical research has concerned the extremely improbable: events that we typically disregard because their probabilities are so low. And yet many such events should be important to philosophers, some of them should be important to scientists, and some of them should be important to all of us.”

“Extremely improbable events, like being struck by lightning, are typically disregarded or not taken seriously, because their probabilities are so low. However, one could argue that probability is not about odds, but about the belief in an existence of an alternative outcome. The chance of winning the lottery for example is extremely improbable. Nevertheless, people still buy tickets with the notion that it is a relatively small price to pay for considering the amount you can win. Does this logic work or are we fooling ourselves?” (Groningen Lecture)

The neural code that makes us human

From Science : Yosef Grodzinsky and Israel Nelken comment on Nima Mesgarani’s et al. recent finding about phonetic feature encoding in the human superior temporal gyrus.

Access from Hebrew University Website

“Speech representation in the auditory cortex … is governed by acoustic features, but not by just any acoustic features—the features that dominate speech representation are precisely those that are associated with abstract, linguistically defined distinctive features. Mesgarani et al., who base their investigation on linguistic distinctions, further demonstrate that features are distinguishable by the degree of the neural invariance they evoke, forming an order that is remarkably in keeping with old linguistic observations: Manner of articulation (manifesting early in developing children) produces a neural invariance that is more prominent than that related to place of articulation (manifesting late in children). A hierarchy noted in 1941 for language acquisition is now resurfacing as part of the neural sensitivity to speech sounds.”

What is so interesting about Mesgarani’s et al. finding is that they identified neural correlates of the very same phonetic features that had been posited by linguists who were stating generalizations about the sound patterns of natural languages. The pioneers in this field were Roman Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoi. Jakobson and Trubetzkoi worked from their armchairs. But, with their razor-sharp analytic minds, they saw abstract patterns in natural languages. Since the patterns were so abstract, it is unlikely that they would have been discovered by neuroscientists alone. Experts on languages needed to see the patterns and develop theories of how they could be generated by a combinatorial mechanism of features. At that point, the question of neural correlates for the representation of speech sounds could be asked in a meaningful way. To be sure, Mesgarani et al. did NOT find the neural code that makes us human. That’s exaggerated. But their work is a model of how insights from linguistics might be ‘transferred’ to cognitive neuroscience.

Phonology and the brain: it’s all in the features. By Itziar Laka.

Paris Forum of the Cognitive Sciences

13th Forum of the Cognitive Sciences

Source: Forum des Sciences Cognitives

Depuis trois ans, le forum s’est ouvert au grand public avec succès : au vu de l’importance grandissante des sciences cognitives dans la société actuelle, il semble de plus en plus nécessaire d’apporter aux non spécialistes un regard critique sur ce domaine. Durant la journée, des chercheurs renommés et spécialistes sont invités à intervenir lors de conférences tout public tandis qu’en parallèle auront lieu des conférences plus spécialisées données par des doctorants et jeunes chercheurs.

Vous pouvez télécharger le programme complet, en cliquant ici.

How to read … a mind

A short (2-week) MOOC from the University of Nottingham: How to read … a mind

Source: Future Learn

“This is a short course that tries to explain what happens when you read a novel or a short story – or in fact any sort of narrative – and you meet the people who live within those pages. How can it be that sometimes we are drawn into the world of the fiction almost as if it’s real? How can we be so immersed in that imaginary world that we can be emotionally affected by what goes on in there? How can we sometimes be so absorbed in the fictional world that we can’t hear when people back in the real world talk to us while we are distracted?

These are questions for anyone who has ever picked up a book and enjoyed it. For the answers, we must look to our best current understanding of how mind and language works – and that means entering into the field of cognitive poetics. Simply, this is a discipline that draws on linguistics and cognitive science to provide explanations for literary reading. The beauty of cognitive poetics is that it addresses questions that are interesting and familiar to all readers, not just professional academics, literary critics and theorists. And it is based on some simple principles so that the journey from introduction to complex understanding is actually very short.”

Glass Brain

Neuroscape Lab visualizes live brain functions using dramatic images | KurzweilAI.

GlassBrain. Credit: Neuroscape lab, UCSF

GlassBrain. Credit: Neuroscape lab, UCSF

“UC San Francisco neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, is hoping to paint a fuller picture of what is happening in the minds and bodies of those suffering from brain disease with his new lab, Neuroscape, which bridges the worlds of neuroscience and high-tech. Gazzaley aims to eliminate the need to immobilize subjects inside big, noisy machines or tether them to computers — making it impossible to simulate what it’s really like to live and interact in a complex world. Instead, in the Neuroscape lab, wireless and mobile technologies set research participants free to move around and interact inside 3D environments, while scientists make functional recordings with an array of technologies .”

Glass Brain flythrough

Representing compound words in the brain

Source: University of North Carolina

Teon Brooks, a member of the NYU Neurolinguistics Lab, looks at the computations involved in recognizing complex words, specifically compound words (words like swan boat, bird house, book award). For semanticists like me, work on compounds by neuroscientists is particularly interesting because compounds are arguably “semantic fossils” (Jackendoff 2002). The kind of compositionality we see in compounds is more rudimentary than the full-fledged compositionally that comes with phrasal syntax, where constituents are headed by functional elements related to voice, aktionsart, aspect, tense, mood, complementizers, definiteness, quantification, and what have you. I would therefore expect the meanings of compounds like swan boat to be computed in a qualitatively different way from the meanings of phrases like boat in the shape of a swan or boat that is inhabited by swans. Is this so? Is there any evidence for this?

A village invents a language on its own

From Australian Geographic

Credit: Carmel O'Shannessy)

Credit: Carmel O’Shannessy

“Light Warlpiri is a newly-evolved language spoken by about 300 people in the Lajamanu Aboriginal community, located at the edge of the Tanami Desert, about 890 km south of Darwin. The language combines elements of English, Kriol (an English-based creole that emerged in the late nineteenth-century) and Warlpiri, an endangered traditional language that is spoken in central Australia by about 4000 people. The Australian linguist Dr Carmel O’Shannessy, who speaks Warlpiri, discovered the existence of Light Warlpiri while working as a teacher and linguist at Lajamanu in the late 1990s. In a paper published this month in the journal Language, Carmel documents for the first time the grammatical structure of the language and discusses the social context that led to its emergence.”

How could a group of children ‘agree’ on a language that is different from that spoken by the adults around them? In his work on conventions, the philosopher David Lewis developed an analysis of tacit agreements of this kind that was inspired by the economist Thomas Schelling.