Ambridge (2018) – Against stored abstractions: A radical exemplar model of language acquisition

Against stored abstractions: A radical exemplar model of language acquisition
Ben Ambridge
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July 2018
The goal of this paper is to make the case for a radical exemplar account of child language acquisition, under which unwitnessed forms are produced and comprehended by on-the-fly analogy across multiple stored exemplars, weighted by their degree of similarity to the target with regard to the task in hand. Across the domains of (1) word meanings, (2) morphologically inflected words, (3) n-grams, (4) sentence-level constructions and (5) phonetics and phonology, accounts based on independently-represented abstractions (whether formal rules or prototype categories) fail for two reasons. First, it is not possible to posit abstractions that delineate possible and impossible forms; e.g., that (a) rule in pool tables and data tables, but rule out chairs, (b) rule in “mist” and rule out “missid” as the phonological form of the past tense of miss, (c) rule in both John feared Bill and John frightened Bill but rule out *John laughed Bill. Second, for each domain, empirical data provide evidence of exemplar storage that cannot be captured by putative abstractions: e.g. speakers prefer and/or show an advantage for (1) exemplar variation even within word-meaning “category boundaries”, (2) novel inflected forms that are similar to existing exemplars, (3) n-grams that have occurred frequently in the input, (4) SVO sentences with he as SUBJECT and it as OBJECT and (5) repeated productions of “the same” word that are phonologically similar or, better still, identical. An exemplar account avoids an intractable lumping-or-splitting dilemma facing abstraction-based accounts and provides a unitary explanation of language acquisition across all domains; one that is consistent with models and empirical findings from the neuroimaging literature.

Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/004131
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: Unpublished preprint
keywords: child language acquisition; exemplar account; instance-based; memory-based; word meaning; syntax; morphology; phonology; n-grams; construction; abstraction, syntax, phonology, semantics, morphology