Learning constraints on wh-dependencies by learning how to efficiently represent wh-dependencies: A developmental modeling investigation with Fragment Grammars.
Niels Dickson, Lisa Pearl, Richard Futrell
February 2022

It’s hotly contested how children learn constraints on the allowed forms in their language, such as constraints on wh-dependencies (these constraints are sometimes called syntactic islands: Chomsky 1973; Pearl and Sprouse 2013). When learning this knowledge, a prerequisite is knowing how to represent wh-dependencies – constraints can then be hypothesized over these dependency representations. Previous work (Pearl and Sprouse, 2013; Liu et al., 2019) explained disparate sets of syntactic island constraints by assuming different wh-dependency representations, without a unified dependency representation capturing all these constraints. Here, we implement a modeled learner attempting to learn a Fragment Grammar (FG) representation (O’Donnell et al., 2011; O’Donnell, 2015) of wh-dependencies—a representation comprised of potentially different-sized fragments that combine to form full dependencies—that best accounts for the input while being as compact as possible. We find that the identified FG, learned from a realistic sample of wh-dependencies from English-learning children’s input, can generate the attested acceptability judgment patterns for all syntactic islands previously investigated, highlighting how implicit knowledge of wh-dependency constraints can emerge from trying to learn to efficiently represent wh-dependencies more generally. We additionally compare the FG representation’s performance against baselines inspired by previous proposals, finding that one baseline also yields equivalent performance. We discuss how this baseline is similar to and different from the FG representation.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/006458
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: Proceedings of the Society for Computation in Linguistics
keywords: wh-dependencies, syntactic islands, computational cognitive modeling, developmental modeling, fragment grammars, child-directed speech, syntax
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