Measuring & comparing

When is one thing more than another? What about less? How does language influence how a child decides, and how is that understanding similar or different from an adult's? We play fun games that involve comparing cartoon characters or simple objects to learn more about how children leverage their language and categorization abilities to perform simple comparisons.

Northwestern IRB #STU00201703

Thinking about events

Cognitive scientists have discovered that children have a sophisticated ability to reason about the properties of objects like toys and substances like water. Much less is known about how they think about events like jumping or flashing, and processes like floating or glowing. We're learning more about this by investigating how children learn verbs!

Northwestern IRB #STU00201135

Syntactic and lexical inference in the acquisition of novel superlatives 2016

by Alexis Wellwood, Annie Gagliardi, and Jeffrey Lidz; Language Learning and Development

Acquiring the correct meanings of words expressing quantities (seven, most) and qualities (red, spotty) present a challenge to learners. Understanding how children succeed at this requires understanding not only what kinds of data are available to them, but also the biases and expectations they bring to the learning task. The results of our word-learning task with 4 year-olds indicates that a "syntactic bootstrapping" hypothesis correctly predicts a bias towards quantity-based interpretations when a novel word appears in the syntactic position of a determiner, but leaves open the explanation of a bias towards quality-based interpretations when the same word is presented in the syntactic position of an adjective. We develop four computational models that differentially encode how lexical, conceptual, and perceptual factors could generate the latter bias. Simulation results suggest it results from a combination of lexical bias and perceptual encoding.

acquisition | superlatives | determiners | number

Participant structure in event perception: Towards the acquisition of implicitly 3-place predicates 2015

by Alexis Wellwood, Angela Xioaxhue He, Jeffrey Lidz, and Alexander Williams; University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics

In acquiring a semantics, children relate their experience of their world to their experience of speakers. When we study this in the lab, we often presume to understand the first part of this relation: we take for granted how the child will experience the world of our experiment, and test for how she will experience an attendant event of speech. Such presumptions are fair. But they need to be justified, when the experience we impute to the child is much richer than what the world presents objectively. In this paper we discuss one such case, reporting on several experiments targeted at assessing event perception in pre-linguistic infants, following the lead of Gordon (2003). We begin by characterizing what a 'participant role' is, and how certain acquisition heuristics that depend on this notion are meant to facilitate verb learning.

acquisition | events | argument-structure

Choosing quantity over quality: syntax guides interpretive preferences for novel superlatives 2012

by Alexis Wellwood, Darko Odic, Justin Halberda, and Jeffrey Lidz; Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society annual meeting

Acquiring the correct meanings of number words (e.g., seven, forty-two) is challenging, as such words fail to describe salient properties of individuals or objects in their environment, referring rather to properties of sets of such objects or individuals. Previous research has revealed a critical role for language itself in how children acquire number word meanings, however attempts to pinpoint precisely the strong linguistic cues has proved challenging. We propose a novel "syntactic bootstrapping" hypothesis in which categorizing a novel word as a determiner leads to quantity-based interpretations. The results of a word learning task with 4 year olds indicates that this hypothesis is on the right track.

acquisition | superlatives | syntactic-bootstrapping

Restrictions on the meanings of determiners: Typological generalisations and learnability 2012

by Tim Hunter, Jeffrey Lidz, Alexis Wellwood, and Anastasia Conroy; Proceedings of Semantics and Linguistic Theory 19

No language has a determiner meaning something like 'less than half' (e.g., a fost to complement determiner most), nor does any language have a determiner meaning something like what most means, but which is non-conservative (e.g., a grfost). Like the hypothetical fost, but unlike the hypothetical grfost, every natural language determiner is "conservative"—i.e., it lives on the set denoted by its complement NP. Are these two typological gaps equally principled? We look at this question from the perspective of language acquisition, asking whether the two meanings (non-conservative or conservative 'less than half') are equally aquirable. Our experiments suggest that children are able to access the non-existent, yet conservative determiner meaning fost, but not a non-conservative counterpart like grfost.

acquisition | determiners | number | syntactic-bootstrapping