15 January: Kenny Smith


Redundancy facilitates learning of grammatical gender and agreement (sometimes)

Kenny Smith (Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh)

Tuesday 15 January
11:30am -12:30pm
G.32, 7 George Square

Abstract: I am interested in whether more complex grammars (which we should generally expect to be harder to learn) might in fact facilitate learning of certain kinds of grammatical relationship. I will present some very preliminary work looking at grammatical gender and agreement. Grammars which have gender (division of nouns into multiple classes) and agreement (systematic covariance between formal properties of two elements) are more complex than those that lack these features; nonetheless, these features are widespread in the languages of the world. This could just reflect the ubiquity of the historical processes by which these systems form, but it’s also worth entertaining the possibility that there are functional pressures at play. It’s been suggested that these features can facilitate processing (Dye et al., 2018, Topics in Cognitive Science, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/tops.12316); I am interested in potential learnability advantages. I’ll present some preliminary experimental work (with Jane Bockmühl and Jenny Culbertson) looking at whether gender agreement with the noun phrase facilitates the learning of grammatical gender, and some neural network models showing similar benefits to redundant marking of grammatical gender. Using the same modelling framework, I’ll also show some preliminary results suggesting that redundant marking of a feature (number or gender) within the noun phrase sometimes facilitates learning of agreement based on that feature between the NP and another constituent (i.e. learning subject-verb agreement for number is easier if number is marked in several places within the NP). This is so far all slightly circular: if you have to learn agreement, having more of that agreement helps, but why bother with agreement in the first place? I’ll therefore also present some even more preliminary results trying to break out of that circularity, exploring whether subject-verb agreement on one feature facilitates learning a different dependency between the same elements (e.g. does number or gender agreement between subject and verb make it easier to learn selectional restrictions between a verb and its arguments?). In case it’s not clear from all the uses of ‘preliminary’ above, this is very much work in the early stages, so input or advice to desist would be appreciated.