Wednesday, January 19, 2011
TAU measures the human mind against the yardstick of a machine
Although we’re convinced that baby is brilliant when she mutters her first words, cognitive scientists have been conducting a decades-long debate about whether or not human beings actually “learn” language.
Most theoretical linguists, including the noted researcher Noam Chomsky, argue that people have little more than a “language organ” — an inherent capacity for language that’s activated during early childhood. On the other hand, researchers like Dr. Roni Katzir of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Linguistics insist that what humans can actually learn is still an open question — and he has built a computer program to try and find an answer.
“I have built a computer program that learns basic grammar using only the bare minimum of cognitive machinery — the bare minimum that children might have — to test the hypothesis that language can indeed be learned,” says Dr. Katzir, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where he took classes taught by Chomsky) and a former faculty member at Cornell University. His early results suggest that the process of language acquisition might be much more active than the majority of linguists have assumed up until now.
Dr. Katzir’s work was recently presented at a Cornell University workshop, where researchers from fields in linguistics, psychology, and computer science gathered to discuss learning processes.