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UD researcher co-authors article in 'Science' magazine

Jeffrey Heinz, left, is shown working in the lab with Herbert Tanner of UD's Department of Mechanical Engineering.

How do humans learn, and how can an evolving “new science of learning” shape the way humans and machines are taught in the future?

Jeffrey Heinz, a University of Delaware assistant professor of linguistics and cognitive science, explores these issues as co-author of “Sentence and Word Complexity,” an article that appears in the July 15, 2011, issue of Science magazine, the journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

William Idsardi, associate professor in the Department of Linguistics and Program in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science at the University of Maryland College Park and former chair of what was then the UD Department of Linguistics, is also co-author of the article.

Heinz noted that this new science of learning reflects a collective effort by psychologists, neuroscientists, linguists, computer scientists, roboticists, and others, to understand how humans learn and how to make machines learn.

“The new part in the learning problem comes from new techniques that have cropped up in the last few decades,” Heinz said. “It’s a very exciting area, whose results are bound to shape the daily lives of future generations.”

The methodologies employed range from experimentation on human adults, children and infants, to computational modeling and mathematical proofs, Heinz said.

The article asks if there are differences among learning patterns during language perception, and if so, are these differences best explained by specialized or non-specialized learning mechanisms.

“We can measure the complexity of sound patterns, and researchers have found that the sound patterns are simpler than syntax patterns,” Heinz said. “It may mean, as we suggest in the article, that these kinds of patterns are learned in different kinds of ways than sentence patterns.”

Natural human language, the authors note, “distinguishes between well-formed and ill-formed sentences and words.”

“When most people think of a language’s grammar, they think of rules that determine how words go together, such as in Spanish, when we say ‘el gato blanco,’ for ‘the white cat,’ or ‘la princessa blanca,’ for ‘the white princess,’” Heinz said. “There also are rules that determine how words can sound in a language, which is why English speakers can coin words like ‘bling,’ but not ‘gding.’”

The article suggests the possibility that the properties of sentence patterns and sound patterns reflect the properties of the ways in which humans learn languages.

“When we learn something, we make a leap from our observations to some general pattern or rule,” Heinz said. “You have to leap somewhere. The idea is, when learning phonology, we leap in one way, but when learning syntax, we leap in another.”

While research continues, work in psychology and linguistics has determined that infants have picked up the key characteristics of sound patterns during the first year of life, before they can talk, Heinz said.

“It’s hard to know how much syntax they have picked up in this time,” Heinz said. “Generally, linguists and psychologists find that the children have internalized the rules governing the sound and sentence patterns of their language by around five years of age.” 

The possibility that distinct learning mechanisms are responsible for learning sentence patterns and sound patterns indicates a certain kind of division of labor is occurring in the human brain, Heinz said.

Such findings might cause machine designers to look for a specialized learning algorithm instead of a general purpose one, Heinz said.

“In the same way that humans don’t have a general sensory organ that solves the problem of sensing; we have ears for earing and eyes for seeing, etc.,” Heinz said. “We also don’t have a general learning strategy. Instead, we have multiple learning strategies, and, unconsciously, we use different ones on different kinds of data.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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UD's Jeffrey Heinz explores how humans learn and how an evolving "new science of learning" might shape the way humans and machines are taught.

UD Linguistics faculty member Jeffrey Heinz explores how humans learn and how an evolving "new science of learning" might shape the way humans and machines are taught in the future.

5/4/2015
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