Usage-based theories of language acquisition have extensively documented the processes by which children acquire language through communicative interaction. Notably, Tomasello (2003) distinguishes two main cognitive capacities that underlie human language acquisition: intention reading and pattern finding. Intention reading is the process by which children try to continuously reconstruct the intended meaning of their interlocutors. Pattern finding refers to the process that allows them to distil linguistic schemata from multiple communicative interactions. Even though the fields of cognitive science and psycholinguistics have studied these processes in depth, no faithful computational operationalisations of these mechanisms through which children learn language exist to date. The research on which we report in this paper aims to fill part of this void by introducing a computational operationalisation of syntactico-semantic pattern finding. Concretely, we present a methodology for learning grammars based on similarities and differences in the form and meaning of linguistic observations alone. Our methodology is able to learn compositional lexical and item-based constructions of variable extent and degree of abstraction, along with a network of emergent syntactic categories. We evaluate our methodology on the CLEVR benchmark dataset and show that the methodology allows for fast, incremental and effective learning. The constructions and categorial network that result from the learning process are fully transparent and bidirectional, facilitating both language comprehension and production. Theoretically, our model provides computational evidence for the learnability of usage-based constructionist theories of language acquisition. Practically, the techniques that we present facilitate the learning of computationally tractable, usage-based construction grammars, which are applicable for natural language understanding and production tasks.
Language Acquisition through Intention Reading and Pattern Finding
Jens Nevens | Jonas Doumen | Paul Van Eecke | Katrien Beuls
Proceedings of the 29th International Conference on Computational Linguistics
One of AI’s grand challenges consists in the development of autonomous agents with communication systems offering the robustness, flexibility and adaptivity found in human languages. While the processes through which children acquire language are by now relatively well understood, a faithful computational operationalisation of the underlying mechanisms is still lacking. Two main cognitive processes are involved in child language acquisition. First, children need to reconstruct the intended meaning of observed utterances, a process called intention reading. Then, they can gradually abstract away from concrete utterances in a process called pattern finding and acquire productive schemata that generalise over form and meaning. In this paper, we introduce a mechanistic model of the intention reading process and its integration with pattern finding capacities. Concretely, we present an agent-based simulation in which an agent learns a grammar that enables them to ask and answer questions about a scene. This involves the reconstruction of queries that correspond to observed questions based on the answer and scene alone, and the generalization of linguistic schemata based on these reconstructed question-query pairs. The result is a productive grammar which can be used to map between natural language questions and queries without ever having observed the queries.