segunda-feira, 4 de março de 2013

A Usage-Based Approach to Recursion in Sentence Processing 

A Usage-Based Approach to Recursion in Sentence Processing 
Morten H. Christiansen - Cornell University
Maryellen C. MacDonald - University of Wisconsin-Madison

Most current approaches to linguistic structure suggest that language is recursive, that recursion is a fundamental property of grammar, and that independent performance constraints limit recursive abilities that would otherwise be infinite. (...) recursion is construed as an acquired skill and in which limitations on the processing of recursive constructions stem from interactions between linguistic experience and intrinsic constraints on learning and processing.


Ever since Humboldt (1836/1999, researchers have hypothesized that language makes “infinite use of finite means.” Yet the study of language had to wait nearly a century before the technical devices for adequately expressing the unboundedness of language became available through the development of recursion theory in the foundations of mathematics (cf. Chomsky, 1965). Recursion has subsequently become a fundamental property of grammar, permitting a finite set of rules and principles to process and produce an infinite number of expressions.


This article presents an alternative, usage-based view of recursive sentence structure, suggesting that recursion is not an innate property of grammar or an a priori computational property of the neural systems subserving language. Instead, we suggest that the ability to process recursive structure is acquired gradually, in an item-based fashion given experience with specific recursive constructions. In contrast to generative approaches, constraints on recursive regularities do not follow from extrinsic limitations on memory or processing; rather they arise from interactions between linguistic experience and architectural constraints on learning and processing (see also Engelmann & Vasishth, 2009; MacDonald & Christiansen, 2002), intrinsic to the system in which the
knowledge of grammatical regularities is embedded. Constraints specific to particular recursive constructions are acquired as part of the knowledge of the recursive regularities themselves and therefore form an integrated part of the representation of those regularities.

A Connectionist Model of Recursive Sentence Processing

Our usage-based approach to recursion builds on a previously developed Simple Recurrent Network (SRN; Elman, 1990) model of recursive sentence processing (Christiansen, 1994; Christiansen & Chater, 1994). The SRN, as illustrated in Figure 1, is essentially a standard feed-forward network equipped with an extra layer of so-called context units. The hidden unit activations from the previous time step are copied back to these context units and paired with the current input. This means that the current state of the hidden units can influence the processing of subsequent inputs, providing the SRN with an ability to deal with integrated sequences of input presented successively.

Usage-Based Constituents

A key question for connectionist models of language is whether they are able to acquire knowledge of grammatical regularities going beyond simple co-occurrence statistics from the training corpus. Indeed, Hadley (1994) suggested that connectionist models could not afford the kind of generalization abilities necessary to account for human language processing (see Marcus, 1998, for a similar critique). Christiansen and Chater (1994) addressed this challenge using the SRN from Christiansen (1994).

Deriving Novel Predictions

Simple Recurrent Networks have been employed successfully to model many aspects of psycholinguistic behavior, ranging from speech segmentation (e.g., Christiansen, Allen, & Seidenberg, 1998; Elman, 1990) and word learning (e.g., Sibley, Kello, Plaut, & Elman, 2008) to syntactic processing (e.g., Christiansen, Dale, & Reali, in press; Elman 1993; Rohde, 2002; see also Ellis & Larsen-Freeman, this issue) and reading (e.g., Plaut, 1999). Moreover, SRNs have also been shown to provide good models of nonlinguistic sequence learning (e.g., Botvinick & Plaut, 2004, 2006; Servan-Schreiber, Cleeremans, & McClelland, 1991). The human-like performance of the SRN can be attributed to an interaction between intrinsic architectural constraints (Christiansen & Chater, 1999) and the statistical properties of its input experience (MacDonald & Christiansen, 2002). By analyzing the internal states of SRNs before and after training with right-branching and center-embedded materials, Christiansen and Chater found that this type of network has a basic architectural bias toward locally bounded dependencies similar to those typically found in iterative recursion. However, in order for the SRN to process multiple instances of iterative recursion, exposure to specific recursive constructions is required. Such exposure is even more crucial for the processing of center-embeddings because the network in this case also has to overcome its architectural bias toward local dependencies. Hence, the SRN does not have a built-in ability for recursion, but instead it develops its human-like processing of different recursive constructions through exposure to repeated instances of such constructions in the input.

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