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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00133

Structured semantic knowledge can emerge automatically from predicting word sequences in child-directed speech

  • 1University of California, Riverside, United States

Previous research has suggested that distributional learning mechanisms may contribute to the acquisition of semantic knowledge. However, distributional learning mechanisms, statistical learning, and contemporary “deep learning” approaches have been criticized for being incapable of learning the kind of abstract and structured knowledge that many think is required for acquisition of semantic knowledge. In this paper, we show that recurrent neural networks, trained on noisy naturalistic speech to children, do in fact learn what appears to be abstract and structured knowledge. We trained two types of recurrent neural networks (Simple Recurrent Network, and Long Short-Term Memory) to predict word sequences in a 5-million-word corpus of speech directed to children ages 0 to 3 years old, and assessed what semantic knowledge they acquired. We found that learned internal representations are encoding various abstract grammatical and semantic features that are useful for predicting word sequences. Assessing the organization of semantic knowledge in terms of the similarity structure, we found evidence of emergent categorical and hierarchical structure in both models. We found that the LSTM and SRN are both learning very similar kinds of representations, but the LSTM achieved higher levels of performance on a quantitative evaluation. We also trained a non-recurrent neural network, Skip-gram, on the same input to compare our results to the state-of-the-art in machine learning. We found that Skip-gram achieves relatively similar performance to the LSTM, but is representing words more in terms of thematic compared to taxonomic relations, and we provide reasons why this might be the case. Our findings show that a learning system that derives abstract, distributed representations for the purpose of predicting sequential dependencies in naturalistic language may provide insight into emergence of many properties of the developing semantic system.

Keywords: Semantic development, language learning, statistical learning, Neural Networks (Computer), Naturalistic setting

Received: 02 Jun 2017; Accepted: 29 Jan 2018.

Edited by:

James L. McClelland, University of Pennsylvania, United States

Reviewed by:

Steve Majerus, University of Liège, Belgium
David H. Rakison, Carnegie Mellon University, United States  

Copyright: © 2018 Huebner and Willits. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Mr. Philip A. Huebner, University of California, Riverside, Riverside, United States,