Towards a rationalist theory of language acquisition

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Edward Stabler ;
The 12th International Conference on Grammatical Inference, PMLR 34:21-32, 2014.

Abstract

Recent computational, mathematical work on learnability extends to classes of languages that plausibly include the human languages, but there is nevertheless a gulf between this work and linguistic theory. The languages of the two fields seem almost completely disjoint and incommensurable. This paper shows that this has happened, at least in part, because the recent advances in learnability have been misdescribed in two important respects. First, they have been described as resting on ‘empiricist’ conceptions of language, when actually, in fundamental respects that are made precise here, they are equally compatible with the ‘rationalist’, ‘nativist’ traditions in linguistic theory. Second, the recent mathematical proposals have sometimes been presented as if they not only advance but complete the account of human language acquisition, taking the rather dramatic difference between what current mathematical models can achieve and what current linguistic theories tell us as an indication that current linguistic theories are quite generally mistaken. This paper compares the two perspectives and takes some first steps toward a unified theory, aiming to identify some common ground where ‘rationalist’ linguistic hypotheses could directly address weaknesses in the current mathematical proposals.

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