MPhil/Ph.D Research Seminar

Second Semester, 2008


Linguistic Nativism Reconsidered


Shalom Lappin

Department of Philosophy

King's College London




Arguments from the poverty of the stimulus (APS) have been used to motivate a strong

form of linguistic nativism. They have been invoked as justification for positing a richly

endowed language faculty, or Universal Grammar, that imposes elaborate constraints on the

set of possible natural languages. The language faculty is presented as a biologically

determined cognitive device which drives language acquisition on the basis of exposure to

linguistic data that is, in itself, insufficient to support grammar induction through domain

general learning procedures. This variety of linguistic nativism has played a defining role

in linguistic theory and cognitive science over the past five decades.


    In this seminar we re-visit leading versions of the APS and subject them to critical

evaluation in light of recent work in computational linguistics, computational learning theory,

psycholinguistics, and theoretical linguistics. We consider what these arguments achieve, and

we explore possible alternatives to the claims that they make concerning language acquisition.

The result is a far reaching revision of long dominant views concerning the nature of the

grammar induction process and the object of knowledge acquired through this process.


    The seminar is based on a course that Alex Clark (Computer Science, Royal Holloway, London)

and I co-taught at the LSA Linguistics Summer Institute in Stanford in July 2007. This course,

in turn, developed out of advanced graduate seminars and research that Alex and I have been doing

jointly and individually over the past several years. We are in the process of writing

a monograph on the issues addressed in the seminar, and the feedback that we receive from

participants will be helpful to us in formulating and revising some of the leading ideas of

the book. 



Day: Tuesday

         The seminar will meet weekly from January 8 until March 18, 2008, except for February 12 

         (reading week) and March 4 (RAE Linguistic Panel meeting)

Time: 16:00-18:00

Location: Seminar Room, Department of Philosophy, King's College London,

                  Room 605, Philosophy Building, Strand Campus


The seminar will approach the issue of grammar induction and the cognitive foundations of

natural language from an interdisciplinary perspective. It is intended for MPhil and Ph.D

research students, and interested faculty in philosophy, linguistics, computer science,

psychology, and cognitive science. Everyone is welcome. 


1. January 8, 2008: Overview of the Problem


  1. Laurence, S. and Margolis, E. "The Poverty of the Stimulus Argument", British Journal

          for the Philosophy of Science, 2001, 52, 217-276, June.

  2. Chomsky, N. (1981), Chapter 1, Lectures on Government and Binding, Foris, Dordrecht,

          pp. 1-16.


Characterizing the Problem


Argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus



2. January 15: A Debate about the Evidence


  1. Pullum, G. and B. Scholz (2002), "Empirical Assemssment of Stimulus Poverty Arguments",

          The Linguistic Review 19, pp. 9-50.

  2. Legate, J. and C. Yang (2002), "Empirical Re-Assessment of Stimulus Poverty Arguments",

          The Linguistic Review 19, pp. 151-162.


A Debate about the Evidence Part 1


A Debate about the Evidence Part 2



3. January 22: Negative Evidence I:


  1. Chouinard, M. and E. Clark (2003), "Adult Reformulations of Child Errors as Negative

          Evidence", Journal of Child Language 30, pp. 637-669.

  2. Marcus, G. (1993), "Negative Evidence in Language Acquisition", Cognition 46, pp.43-85. 


Negative Evidence I Part 1


Negative Evidence I Part 2



4. January 29: Negative Evidence II


Guest Talk


Testing Assumptions about the Input: Empirical Evidence about Negative Evidence

                                                  Matthew Saxton

                        Department of Psychology and Human Development

                               Institute of Education, University of London


  1. Saxton, Matthew (1997), "The Contrast Theory of Negative Input", Journal of Child Language

          24,  pp. 139-161.

  2. Saxton, M., C. Houston-Rice, and N. Dawson (2005), "The Prompt Hypothesis: Clarification

          Requests as Corrective Input for Grammatical Errors", Applied Psycholinguistics 26,

          pp. 393-414. 


Negative Evidence II



5. February 5: Grammar Induction through Machine Learning


  1. Clark, A. and R. Eyraud (2006), "Learning Auxiliary Fronting with Grammatical Inference",

          CONLL X (

  2. Klein, D. and C. Manning (2004), "Corpus-Based Induction of Syntactic Structure: Models

          of Dependency and Constitutency", Proceedings of the 42th Annual Meeting of the

          Association for  Computational Linguistics, Barcelona.


  3. Bod, R. (2006), "An All-Subtrees Approach to Unsupervised Learning", Proceedings of the

          ACL-COLING 2006, pp. 865-872. 


Machine Learning Part 1


Machine Learning Part 2



6. February 12: Reading Week



7. February 19: Computational Learning Theory I


  1. Gold, E.M. (1967), "Language Identification in the Limit", Information and Control 10,

          pp. 447-474.

  2. Lappin, S. and S. Shieber (2007), "Machine Learning Theory and Practise as a Source of       

          Insight into Universal Grammar", Journal of Linguistics 43, pp. 293-427


  3. Peirera, F. (2000), "Formal Grammar and Information Theory: Together Again?",

          Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Royal Society, London, pp. 1239-1253.


Computational Learning Theory 1



 8. February 26: Computational Learning Theory II


Guest Talk


Formalising Learnability for First Language Acquisition

                               Alex Clark

               Department of Computer Science

     Royal Holloway College, University of London


  1. Clark, A. (2004) "Grammatical Inference and the Argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus,

          AAAI Spring Symposium on Interdisciplinary Approaches to Language Learning, Stanford, CA.

  2. Clark, A. and Franck Thollard (2004), "Partially Distribution-Free Learning of Regular

          Languages from Positive Samples", Proceedings of COLING 2004, pp. 85-91


  3. Nowak, M, N. L. Komarova, and P. Niyogi (2002), "Computational and Evolutionary Aspects of

          Language", Nature 411, pp. 611-617.


Computational Learning Theory II



9. March 4: No seminar (RAE Linguistics Panel Meeting)



10. March 11: Parameters in Strong and Weak Bias Language Models


  1. Lappin, S. and S. Shieber (2007), "Machine Learning Theory and Practise as a Source of       

          Insight into Universal Grammar", Journal of Linguistics 43, pp. 293-427


  2. Newmeyer, F. (2005), Possible and Probable Languages, Oxford University Press,

          Oxford, chapters 2 and 3.


Parameters in UG and in Language Models



11. March 18: Statistical Learning in Language Acquisition


1.    Weiss, D. and E. Newport (2006), “Mechanisms Underlying Language Acquisition: Benefits of

           a Comparative Approach”, Infancy 2, pp. 241-257.

  2. Thompson, S. and E. Newport (2007), “Statistical Learning of Syntax: The Role of Statistical

           Probability”, Language Learning and Development 3, pp. 1-42.

3.    Wonnacott, E., E. Newport, and M. Tanenhaus (2007), “Acquiring and Processing Verb Argument

           Structure: Distributional Learning in a Miniature Language”, Cognitive Psychology.




Background Reading


Special issue of the Linguistic Review (2002), volume 19, pp 1-223.

Abney, S. (1996), "Statistical Methods and Linguistics" in The Balancing Act: Combining Symbolic

    and Statistical Approaches to Language, edited by Judith Klavans, Philip Resnik, pp.1-26.

Baker, M. (2001), The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar, Basic Books,

    New York.

Bresnan, J., A. Cueni, T. Nikitina, and H Baayen. (2005),  "Predicting the Dative Alternation",

    to appear in Royal Netherlands Academy of Science Workshop on Foundations of Interpretation 


Charniak, E. (1997), "Statistical Parsing with Context-Free Grammar and Word Statistics",

    Proceedinsg of the Fourteenth National Conference on Artificial Intelligence, pp. 598-603.

Chomsky, N. (1957), Syntactic Structures, Mouton, The Hague.

Chomsky, N. (1986), Knowledge of Language, Praeger, New York.

Chomsky, N. (1995), The Minimalist Program, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Chomsky, N. (2005), "Three Factors in Language Design", Linguistic Inquiry 36, pp. 1-21.

Clark, A. (2003), Combining Distributional and Morphological Information for Part of Speech

    Induction", Proceedings of the 10th Annual Meeting of the European Association of  Computational

    Linguistics, pp.59-66.

Clark, A. (2004), "Grammatical Inference and First Language Acquisition", Workshop on

    Psychocomputational Models of Human Language Acquisition, Geneva.

Fiona Cowie (1999), What's Within? Nativism Reconsidered, Oxford University Press.

Diessel, H. and M. Tomasello (2005), "A New Look at the Acquisition of Relative Clauses", Language 81,

    pp. 882-906.

Fernandez, R., J. Ginzburg, and S. Lappin (2007), "Classifying Non-Sentential Utterances in Dialogue:

    A Machine Learning Approach", Computational Linguistics 33(3), pp. 397-427.


Gibson, E. and K. Wexler (1994), "Triggers", Linguistic Inquiry 25, pp. 407-454.

Goldsmith, J. (2001), "Unsupervised Learning of the Morphology of a natural Language", Computational

    Linguistics 27, pp. 153-198.

Harris, Z. (1951), Structural Linguistics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Jurafsky, D. and J. Martin (2000), Speech and Language Processing, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle

    River, NJ.

Kearns, M. and U. Vazirani (1997), An Introduction to Computational Learning Theory, MIT Press,

    Cambridge, MA.

Klein, D. and C. Manning (2002), "A Generative Constituent-Contex Model for Improved Grammar

    Induction", Proceedings of the 40th Annual Meeting of the Association for  Computational

    Linguistics, pp. 128-135.

Lappin, S. (2005), "Machine Learning and the Cognitive Basis of Natural Language", Proceedings of

    Computational Linguistics in the Netherlands 2004, Leiden, pp. 1-11.

Lasnik, H. and J. Uriagareka (2002), "On the Poverty of the Challenge", The Linguistic Review 19,

    pp. 147-150.

MacWhinney, B, (2004), "Multiple Process Solution to the Logical Problem of Language Acquisiton",

    Journal of Child Language 31, pp. 883-914.

MacWhinney, B. (2005), "Item-Based Constructions and the Logical Problem", Proceedings of the Second

    Workshop on Psychocomputational Models of Human Language Acquisition, Association of Computational

    Linguistics, pp. 53-68.

Manning, C. and H. Schuetze (1999), Foundations of Statistical Language Processing, MIT Press,

    Cambridge, MA.

Newmeyer, F. (2004), "Against a Parameter-Setting Approach to Typogical Variation", Linguistic Variation

    Yearbook 4, pp. 182-234.

Niyogi, P. (2006), The Computational Nature of Language Learning and Evolution, MIT Press, Cambridge,


Perfors, A., J. Tenenbaum, and T. Regier (2006), "Poverty of the Stimulus? A Rational Approach",

    Proceedings of Cognitive Science 2006.

Pinker, Steven, 1979 "Formal Models of Language Learning", Cognition 7, 217-282. 

Saffran, J., R. Aslin, and E. Newport (1996), "Statistical Learning by 8-Month-Old Infants", Science,

    274, pp. 1926-1928.

Scholz, B. and G. Pullum (2006), "Irrational Nativist Exuberance" in Robert Stainton (ed.), Debates

    in Cognitive Science, Blackwell, Oxford.

Tomasello, M. (2003), Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition,

    Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Wexler, Ken (1991), "On the Argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus", in The Chomskyan Turn,

    ed. Kasher, Asa, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 252-270.

Yang, C. (2002),  Knowledge and Learning in Natural Language, Oxford

Yang, C. (2004), "Universal Grammar, Statistics, or Both?", Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10,

    pp. 451-456.