Learning, memory and syntactic bootstrapping: A meditation

Jeffrey Lidz

Lila Gleitman’s body of work on word learning raises an apparent paradox. Whereas work on syntactic bootstrapping depends on learners retaining information about the set of distributional contexts that a word occurs in, work on identifying a word’s referent suggests that learners do not retain information about the set of extralinguistic contexts that a word occurs in. I argue that this asymmetry derives from the architecture of the language faculty. Learners expect words with similar meanings to have similar distributions, and so learning depends on a memory for syntactic environments. The referential context in which a word is used is less constrained and hence contributes less to the memories that drive word learning.