Masoud Jasbi is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Linguistics at Harvard University. His research addresses how abstract functional meanings emerge and develop in the child’s mind, and how much do languages vary in the ways they encode functional meaning. For more information, his website is here.
The Puzzle of Learning Disjunction
To understand language, we rely on mental representations of what words mean. What constitutes these representations and how are they learned? To address this question, I discuss the puzzle of learning the disjunction word “or”. I present experimental studies that show preschool children (3-5 years old) can interpret “or” as inclusive disjunction. I also present the results of a corpus annotation study that shows the exclusive interpretation is much more common in child-directed speech. These two findings confirm a puzzle in the current literature: How can children learn the inclusive interpretation of “or” if they rarely hear it? My proposal is that exclusive interpretations in child-directed speech correlate with interpretive cues such as intonation and the semantic consistency of the disjuncts. Applying a supervised machine learning technique, I check the reliability of these cues and demonstrate that an ideal learner can use them to learn both inclusive and exclusive interpretations of disjunction from child-directed speech. Together, these studies provide evidence for a more sophisticated word learning mechanism as well as richer and more context-dependent representations of functional meaning than previously assumed.