Brownian thought space

Cognitive science, mostly, but more a sometimes structured random walk about things.

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Core Capacities of Word Learning

Recently we had Lori Markson here with her husband, Camillo Padoa-Schioppa (who spoke about the neuronal representation of economic value.) Lori's talk was: Core Capacities of Word Learning. The best things were the experiments themselves. The other nice thing was the claim that several of the capacities for word learning might not be specific to word learning, but might be related to 'general' capacities for, e.g., learning the properties of objects, discovering categories of different kinds and so forth. But, I really am very very Gallistelaciously suspicious of general capacities of any kind (see this paper by Gallistel for starters). And I discovered, there's yet another thing that I'm suspicious of, but I'm not sure! Imagine that there is some competence that we all know, love and recognize; let's call it Riding a Bicycle (RaB, not to be confused with Rab). However, we soon find that things we require for RaB are not specific to it. For example, grasping and manipulating (approximately) cylindrical objects is not RaB-specific; we find the same competence even for playing tennis. Neither is setting the body in balance specific to RaB: riding horses, skating on ice and even plain old-fashioned walking require it. The competence seems genetically built in: take a baby from a non-RaB culture (Australian aborigines?) and introduce it to bicycles and behold! RaB develops! Next, we find that other species can do it as well. Bears can be taught RaB. So can monkeys and great apes. It doesn't extend all the down to , for example, to fish or insects. So much for comparative evidence. Evidence from pathologies shows that RaB is somewhat robust. A lack of hands is not a necessary impedement to RaB, although lack of feet typically is. Can we now conclude that RaB is a competence that is built out of just these other ('general') competences like object grasping and manipulation, throwing one's weight around and the like? I suppose so. So it is, apparently, with word learning, according to Lori. But the question is, really, IS word learning really like riding a bicycle? Somehow I think not; but the point is not clear enough. Why not? Well for one, we are the only species that have it. But then we seem to be the only species that has language, if by language we mean our kind of language (our kinds of generative rules, to avoid circularity). So, the closest I can get is to say that word learning is a language-specific thing. Corollary: you can have ALL the competences that Lori requires, and STILL not have word-learning. This is not true for bicycle-riding. In this view (see also Pinker & Jackendoff), word-learning skills utilize other skills, but the goals are clear; to learn a vocabulary. How does this fit with (a) a Mentalese view of language and (b) Sperbian accounts of Relevance?

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