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Learning Strings: A Shortcut to Grammar?

Date: 7 March 2007 Time: 4.00-5.30 pm

Elena Lieven (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology & University of Manchester) will be giving a Departmental lecture entitled:


Wednesday 7th March4.00-5.30 pmCavendish Lecture Theatre

Refreshments from 3.30 pm.


AbstractI will outline three types of empirical studies bearing on the question of whether syntax might be learned via distributional learning mechanisms, specifically through the entrenchment of highly frequent strings in the input and their subsequent analysis. First I present a new method of analysing spontaneous speech to examine the novel utterances of English-speaking two- to three-year-olds. Our results indicate that many of the children's novel utterances could have been built by filling slots in schemas developed from entrenched strings. I use these data to indicate the processes by which children may build up more complex syntactic representations. The second study analyses the repetitiveness, in initial strings, of English, German and Russian child-directed speech. Repetitiveness is highest in English, followed by German and then Russian, which follows the word order restrictiveness and differences in inflectional morphology shown by these languages. Nonetheless, even in Russian, the lexical 'frames' we found accounted for over 75% of the mother's utterances. Thus, even in languages where word order is potentially free, the input children receive still contains a great degree of predictability at the beginnings of utterances. Finally I will address the question of children's errors and whether many of these may also be accounted for by the interaction between distributional regularities in the input and the child's learning mechanisms. I conclude by outlining some of the major issues for further research raised by this approach.


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Further information

Organising departments and research centres: Linguistics and English Language


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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4YD
United Kingdom

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