19 Apr Learning by Doing or Active Osmosis
When people use their native language, they don’t usually think about how verbs are supposed to be conjugated. They don’t stop to figure out number agreement, transitivity, or aspect. They just talk. Intuitions about language are probably not based on the grammar rules that govern how parts of speech go together. Instead, these intuitions are centered on what words and phrases mean, how words and phrases sound, how they interact with other words and phrases, and when they should be used. If this is so, the word, as opposed to the sentence, is the critical structure in language understanding, and semantics and pragmatics must be as important as morphology and syntax.
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A True Story… I once took a fluency test in Japanese. I didn’t expect to do well because I had gone five years without speaking, reading or writing Japanese, and I had very little formal education, having picked up most of what I once knew interacting with Japanese people while living among them for a couple years. Imagine my surprise when I achieved a top score. Now imagine my surprise when, after returning to Japan and studying the language on my own for several months, I took the test again and received a lower score! I hid my books and, after a year of passive (or at least informal) absorption, was fortunately able to get my score back up.
This empirical observation illustrates why intuition is essential for deep language understanding. As I am not a native speaker of Japanese, it may help if you know how I first learned it. I spent roughly 60 hours actively studying grammar, 400 hours actively learning vocabulary, and several hundred hours absorbing the sounds, rhythms and patterns of the language by listening to native speakers in normal day-to-day life in Japan. Yet, with all this, the most important part of my learning was a-priori world knowledge combined with cultural cues.
Can computers absorb? Can computers spot cultural cues and relate them to their own experiences? If not, we will need a mechanism for coding in as much information as possible to compensate for their social ineptitude.
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