Biography of Lila Gleitman

Lila Gleitman

Lila Gleitman has fundamentally shaped our scientific understanding of both language and cognition, and the relationship between these fields, as well as the nature of human learning. Over a long career, Gleitman has done more than anyone to establish both the theoretical structure and the empirical basis for the notion that when children learn language they are not simply forming statistical associations between sequences of speech sounds, or associations between words and percepts or experiences; rather children are doing a remarkably sophisticated kind of symbolic reasoning or detective work, reverse-engineering the logic of language with syntax – the law-like relations between linguistic form and meaning – at its core.

Gleitman’s contributions are incredibly wide-reaching, but she is best known for her proposals for how sensitivity to syntactic structure lets children infer the underlying meanings of words, especially with a focus on verbs. For example, when hearing “John pilked Bill”, you can infer that “pilk” is a two-argument predicate, likely conveying an externally caused event in which John does something to or for Bill. This is complementary to, often completely independent of and more important than the data that for centuries scholars took to be the primary evidence for learning word meanings or concepts, namely seeing what is going on in the world while people are talking. Her syntactic bootstrapping research program has has allowed her to explain many general properties of language acquisition, including:

(1) How blind children, without the main route of perceptual access to the surrounding referent world nevertheless acquire language in ways similar, and essentially at the same pace, as sighted children.

(2) How deaf children lacking any access to a spoken language, spontaneously create communication systems (home-signs) that reflect the semantic-syntactic structure found in spoken languages of the world.

(3) Why verbs are learned more slowly than nouns, despite the fact that infants can conceptualize the meanings of verbs – the structure of events in the world – quite well from a young age.

(4) How older children use the meaning-structure mappings embedded in syntactic frames to disambiguate very underdetermined mappings between words and the world, and thereby learn words much more quickly than simple associative mechanisms ever could.

(5) Why young children are observed to rely heavily on linguistic cues to word meaning over and above social-referential cues when identifying verb meanings and processing sentences

Selected Publications

Gleitman, L. (1990). The structural sources of verb meanings. Language acquisition, 1(1), 3-55.

Gleitman, L., January, D., Nappa, R., & Trueswell, J.C. (2007). On the give and take between event apprehension and utterance formulation. Journal of Memory and Language, 57(4), 544-569.

Gleitman, L. R., Cassidy, K., Nappa, R., Papafragou, A., & Trueswell, J. C. (2005). Hard words. Language Learning and Development, 1(1), 23-64.

Gleitman, L. R., & Newport, E. L. (1995). The invention of language by children: Environmental and biological influences on the acquisition of language. An invitation to cognitive science, 1, 1-24.

Gleitman, L. R., Newport, E. L., & Gleitman, H. (1984). The current status of the motherese hypothesis. Journal of Child Language, 11(01), 43-79.

Gillette, J., Gleitman, H., Gleitman, L., & Lederer, A. (1999). Human simulations of vocabulary learning. Cognition, 73(2), 135-176.

Gleitman, L. & Landau, B. (2012). Every child an isolate: nature’s experiments in language learning. In M. Piattelli-Palmarini and R. C. Berwick (Eds.), Rich Languages from Poor Inputs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Landau, B., and Gleitman, L. R. (2009). Language and experience: Evidence from the blind child (Vol. 8). Harvard University Press.

Medina, T. N., Snedeker, J., Trueswell, J. C., & Gleitman, L. R. (2011). How words can and cannot be learned by observation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(22), 9014-9019.

Trueswell, J. C., Medina, T. N., Hafri, A., & Gleitman, L. R. (2013). Propose but verify: Fast mapping meets cross-situational word learning. Cognitive Psychology, 66(1), 126-156.