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Naomi Feldman

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Associate Professor, Linguistics

Associate Professor, Institute for Advanced Computer Studies

(301) 405-5800

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Research Expertise

Computational Linguistics
Computational Modeling
Language Acquisition
Phonology

Publications

Language Discrimination May Not Rely on Rhythm: A Computational Study

Challenging the relationship between rhythm and language discrimination in infancy.

Linguistics | College of Arts and Humanities

Contributor(s): Leslie Ruolan Li, Naomi Feldman
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Abi Aboelata (UMD), Thomas Schatz (Marseilles)
Dates:

It has long been assumed that infants’ ability to discriminate between languages stems from their sensitivity to speech rhythm, i.e., organized temporal structure of vowels and consonants in a language. However, the relationship between speech rhythm and language discrimination has not been directly demonstrated. Here, we use computational modeling and train models of speech perception with and without access to information about rhythm. We test these models on language discrimination, and find that access to rhythm does not affect the success of the model in replicating infant language discrimination results. Our findings challenge the relationship between rhythm and language discrimination,

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Naturalistic speech supports distributional learning across contexts

Infants can learn what acoustic dimensions contrastive by attending to phonetic context.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Naomi Feldman
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Kasia Hitczenko *19
Dates:

At birth, infants discriminate most of the sounds of the world’s languages, but by age 1, infants become language-specific listeners. This has generally been taken as evidence that infants have learned which acoustic dimensions are contrastive, or useful for distinguishing among the sounds of their language(s), and have begun focusing primarily on those dimensions when perceiving speech. However, speech is highly variable, with different sounds overlapping substantially in their acoustics, and after decades of research, we still do not know what aspects of the speech signal allow infants to differentiate contrastive from noncontrastive dimensions. Here we show that infants could learn which acoustic dimensions of their language are contrastive, despite the high acoustic variability. Our account is based on the cross-linguistic fact that even sounds that overlap in their acoustics differ in the contexts they occur in. We predict that this should leave a signal that infants can pick up on and show that acoustic distributions indeed vary more by context along contrastive dimensions compared with noncontrastive dimensions. By establishing this difference, we provide a potential answer to how infants learn about sound contrasts, a question whose answer in natural learning environments has remained elusive.

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The Power of Ignoring: Filtering Input for Argument Structure Acquisition

How to avoid learning from misleading data by identifying a filter without knowing what to filter.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Naomi Feldman, Jeffrey Lidz
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Laurel Perkins *19 (UCLA)
Dates:

Learning in any domain depends on how the data for learning are represented. In the domain of language acquisition, children’s representations of the speech they hear determine what generalizations they can draw about their target grammar. But these input representations change over development asa function of children’s developing linguistic knowledge, and may be incomplete or inaccurate when children lack the knowledge to parse their input veridically. How does learning succeed in the face of potentially misleading data? We address this issue using the case study of “non-basic” clauses inverb learning. A young infant hearing What did Amy fix? might not recognize that what stands in for the direct object of fix, and might think that fix is occurring without a direct object. We follow a previous proposal that children might filter nonbasic clauses out of the data for learning verb argument structure, but offer a new approach. Instead of assuming that children identify the data to filter ina dvance, we demonstrate computationally that it is possible for learners to infer a filter on their input without knowing which clauses are nonbasic. We instantiate a learner that considers the possibility that it misparses some of the sentences it hears, and learns to filter out those parsing errors in order to correctly infer transitivity for the majority of 50 frequent verbs in child-directed speech. Our learner offers a novel solution to the problem of learning from immature input representations: Learners maybe able to avoid drawing faulty inferences from misleading data by identifying a filter on their input,without knowing in advance what needs to be filtered.

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Informativity, topicality, and speech cost: comparing models of speakers’ choices of referring expressions

Is use of a pronoun motivated by topicality or efficiency?

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Naomi Feldman
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Naho Orita *15 (Tokyo University of Science)
Dates:

This study formalizes and compares two major hypotheses in speakers’ choices of referring expressions: the topicality model that chooses a form based on the topicality of the referent, and the rational model that chooses a form based on the informativity of the form and its speech cost. Simulations suggest that both the topicality of the referent and the informativity of the word are important to consider in speakers’ choices of reference forms, while a speech cost metric that prefers shorter forms may not be.

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Social inference may guide early lexical learning

Assessment of knowledgeability and group membership influences infant word learning.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Naomi Feldman, William Idsardi
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Alayo Tripp *19
Dates:

We incorporate social reasoning about groups of informants into a model of word learning, and show that the model accounts for infant looking behavior in tasks of both word learning and recognition. Simulation 1 models an experiment where 16-month-old infants saw familiar objects labeled either correctly or incorrectly, by either adults or audio talkers. Simulation 2 reinterprets puzzling data from the Switch task, an audiovisual habituation procedure wherein infants are tested on familiarized associations between novel objects and labels. Eight-month-olds outperform 14-month-olds on the Switch task when required to distinguish labels that are minimal pairs (e.g., “buk” and “puk”), but 14-month-olds' performance is improved by habituation stimuli featuring multiple talkers. Our modeling results support the hypothesis that beliefs about knowledgeability and group membership guide infant looking behavior in both tasks. These results show that social and linguistic development interact in non-trivial ways, and that social categorization findings in developmental psychology could have substantial implications for understanding linguistic development in realistic settings where talkers vary according to observable features correlated with social groupings, including linguistic, ethnic, and gendered groups.

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Japanese children's knowledge of the locality of "zibun" and "kare"

Initial errors in the acquisition of the Japanese local- or long-distance anaphor "zibun."

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz, Naomi Feldman
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Naho Orita *15, Hajime Ono *06
Dates:

Although the Japanese reflexive zibun can be bound both locally and across clause boundaries, the third-person pronoun kare cannot take a local antecedent. These are properties that children need to learn about their language, but we show that the direct evidence of the binding possibilities of zibun is sparse and the evidence of kare is absent in speech to children, leading us to ask about children’s knowledge. We show that children, unlike adults, incorrectly reject the long-distance antecedent for zibun, and while being able to access this antecedent for a non-local pronoun kare, they consistently reject the local antecedent for this pronoun. These results suggest that children’s lack of matrix readings for zibun is not due to their understanding of discourse context but the properties of their language understanding.

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Modeling the learning of the Person Case Constraint

Adam Liter and Naomi Feldman show that the Person Case Constraint can be learned on the basis of significantly less data, if the constraint is represented in terms of feature bundles.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Adam Liter, Naomi Feldman
Dates:

Many domains of linguistic research posit feature bundles as an explanation for various phenomena. Such hypotheses are often evaluated on their simplicity (or parsimony). We take a complementary approach. Specifically, we evaluate different hypotheses about the representation of person features in syntax on the basis of their implications for learning the Person Case Constraint (PCC). The PCC refers to a phenomenon where certain combinations of clitics (pronominal bound morphemes) are disallowed with ditransitive verbs. We compare a simple theory of the PCC, where person features are represented as atomic units, to a feature-based theory of the PCC, where person features are represented as feature bundles. We use Bayesian modeling to compare these theories, using data based on realistic proportions of clitic combinations from child-directed speech. We find that both theories can learn the target grammar given enough data, but that the feature-based theory requires significantly less data, suggesting that developmental trajectories could provide insight into syntactic representations in this domain.

A unified account of categorical effects in phonetic perception

A statistical model that explains both the strong categorical effects in perception of consonants, and the very weak effects in perception of vowels.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Naomi Feldman
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Yakov Kronrod, Emily Coppess
Dates:
Categorical effects are found across speech sound categories, with the degree of these effects ranging from extremely strong categorical perception in consonants to nearly continuous perception in vowels. We show that both strong and weak categorical effects can be captured by a unified model. We treat speech perception as a statistical inference problem, assuming that listeners use their knowledge of categories as well as the acoustics of the signal to infer the intended productions of the speaker. Simulations show that the model provides close fits to empirical data, unifying past findings of categorical effects in consonants and vowels and capturing differences in the degree of categorical effects through a single parameter.

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Infant-directed speech is consistent with teaching

Why do we speak differently to infants than to adults? To help answer this question, Naomi Feldman offers a formal theory of phonetic teaching and learning.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Naomi Feldman
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Baxter Eaves Jr., Thomas Griffiths, Patrick Shafto
Dates:
Infant-directed speech (IDS) has distinctive properties that differ from adult-directed speech (ADS). Why it has these properties -- and whether they are intended to facilitate language learning -- is matter of contention. We argue that much of this disagreement stems from lack of a formal, guiding theory of how phonetic categories should best be taught to infant-like learners. In the absence of such a theory, researchers have relied on intuitions about learning to guide the argument. We use a formal theory of teaching, validated through experiments in other domains, as the basis for a detailed analysis of whether IDS is well-designed for teaching phonetic categories. Using the theory, we generate ideal data for teaching phonetic categories in English. We qualitatively compare the simulated teaching data with human IDS, finding that the teaching data exhibit many features of IDS, including some that have been taken as evidence IDS is not for teaching. The simulated data reveal potential pitfalls for experimentalists exploring the role of IDS in language learning. Focusing on different formants and phoneme sets leads to different conclusions, and the benefit of the teaching data to learners is not apparent until a sufficient number of examples have been provided. Finally, we investigate transfer of IDS to learning ADS. The teaching data improves classification of ADS data, but only for the learner they were generated to teach; not universally across all classes of learner. This research offers a theoretically-grounded framework that empowers experimentalists to systematically evaluate whether IDS is for teaching.

Why discourse affects speakers' choice of referring expressions

A probalistic model of the choice between using a pronoun or some other referring expression.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Naomi Feldman
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Naho Orita, Eliana Vornov, Hal Daumé III
Dates:
We propose a language production model that uses dynamic discourse information to account for speakers' choices of referring expressions. Our model extends previous rational speech act models (Frank and Goodman, 2012) to more naturally distributed linguistic data, instead of assuming a controlled experimental setting. Simulations show a close match between speakers' utterances and model predictions, indicating that speakers' behavior can be modeled in a principled way by considering the probabilities of referents in the discourse and the information conveyed by each word.

A role for the developing lexicon in phonetic category acquisition

Bayesian models and artificial language learning tasks show that infant acquiosition of phonetic categories can be helpfully constrained by feedback from word segmentation.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Naomi Feldman
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Thomas Griffiths, Sharon Goldwater, James Morgan
Dates:
Infants segment words from fluent speech during the same period when they are learning phonetic categories, yet accounts of phonetic category acquisition typically ignore information about the words in which sounds appear. We use a Bayesian model to illustrate how feedback from segmented words might constrain phonetic category learning by providing information about which sounds occur together in words. Simulations demonstrate that word-level information can successfully disambiguate overlapping English vowel categories. Learning patterns in the model are shown to parallel human behavior from artificial language learning tasks. These findings point to a central role for the developing lexicon in phonetic category acquisition and provide a framework for incorporating top-down constraints into models of category learning.

Word-level information influences phonetic learning in adults and infants

How do infants learn the phonetic categories of their language? The words they occur can provide a useful cue, shows Naomi Feldman.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Naomi Feldman
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Emily Myers, Katherine White, Thomas Griffiths, James Morgan
Dates:
Infants begin to segment words from fluent speech during the same time period that they learn phonetic categories. Segmented words can provide a potentially useful cue for phonetic learning, yet accounts of phonetic category acquisition typically ignore the contexts in which sounds appear. We present two experiments to show that, contrary to the assumption that phonetic learning occurs in isolation, learners are sensitive to the words in which sounds appear and can use this information to constrain their interpretation of phonetic variability. Experiment 1 shows that adults use word-level information in a phonetic category learning task, assigning acoustically similar vowels to different categories more often when those sounds consistently appear in different words. Experiment 2 demonstrates that eight-month-old infants similarly pay attention to word-level information and that this information affects how they treat phonetic contrasts. These findings suggest that phonetic category learning is a rich, interactive process that takes advantage of many different types of cues that are present in the input.

The influence of categories on perception: Explaining the perceptual magnet effect as optimal statistical inference

Naomi Feldman develops a Bayesian account of the perceptual magnet effect.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Naomi Feldman
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Thomas Griffiths, James Morgan
Dates:

A variety of studies have demonstrated that organizing stimuli into categories can affect the way the stimuli are perceived. We explore the influence of categories on perception through one such phenomenon, the perceptual magnet effect, in which discriminability between vowels is reduced near prototypical vowel sounds. We present a Bayesian model to explain why this reduced discriminability might occur: It arises as a consequence of optimally solving the statistical problem of perception in noise. In the optimal solution to this problem, listeners’ perception is biased toward phonetic category means because they use knowledge of these categories to guide their inferences about speakers’ target productions. Simulations show that model predictions closely correspond to previously published human data, and novel experimental results provide evidence for the predicted link between perceptual warping and noise. The model unifies several previous accounts of the perceptual magnet effect and provides a framework for exploring categorical effects in other domains.