[Coloquio BIFI] Child Language Acquisition: Child-directed Speech and Developing Semantic Networks

Published on 2012-07-04 17:30 CEST

Speaker: Dr. Thomas Hills (University of Basel, Switzerland)

Date & location: Monday 13th December 2010, 12:00 (CET). Sala de Conferencias / Edificio Institutos Universitarios / Campus Río Ebro

Recent developments in network analysis represent a valuable tool for investigating the structure and acquisition of language. A central problem of language acquisition is determining what words mean. Secondary to this problem is determining whether or not adults do anything to facilitate children’s acquisition of word meanings. According to Saussure (1915), the meaning of a word is established by the company it keeps with other words—i.e., its associates. We investigate the development of child language in terms of this associative structure of child-directed speech. The hypothesis is that early word learning may be driven in part by contextual diversity in the learning environment, with contextual diversity in caregiver speech correlating with the semantic/associative structure in language meaning (e.g., the first word that comes to mind when you hear the word "CAT"). To test this, we develop and compare models of longitudinal network growth (e.g., preferential attachment versus preferential acquisition) using the co-occurrence structure of words in a large text corpus of caregiver speech. We find that a word’s contextual diversity—the number of unique word types a word co-occurs with in caregiver speech—predicts semantic network growth and is highly correlated with the number of unique associative cues for a given target word in adult free association norms. Further analysis of speech corpora finds that child-directed speech has a distinct associative signature, which strongly follows the pattern of early word acquisition (as predicted by Saussure), and which falls off precipitously as adults speak with individuals of increasing age.

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