Learning the unlearnable: The role of missing evidence

  • Regier T
  • Gahl S
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Syntactic knowledge is widely held to be partially innate, rather than learned. In a classic example, it is sometimes argued that children know the proper use of anaphoric one, although that knowledge could not have been learned from experience. Lidz et al. [Lidz, J., Waxman, S., & Freedman, J. (2003). What infants know about syntax but couldn't have learned: Experimental evidence for syntactic structure at 18 months. Cognition, 89, B65-B73.] pursue this argument, and present corpus and experimental evidence that appears to support it; they conclude that specific aspects of this knowledge must be innate. We demonstrate, contra Lidz et al., that this knowledge may in fact be acquired from the input, through a simple Bayesian learning procedure. The learning procedure succeeds because it is sensitive to the absence of particular input patterns - an aspect of learning that is apparently overlooked by Lidz et al. More generally, we suggest that a prominent form of the "argument from poverty of the stimulus" suffers from the same oversight, and is as a result logically unsound. © 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Bayesian learning
  • Emergence
  • Indirect learning
  • Innateness
  • Language acquisition
  • Poverty of the stimulus
  • Syntax

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  • Terry Regier

  • Susanne Gahl

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