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Feature-rich multiplex lexical networks reveal mental strategies of early language learning

2022-01-13 16:44:51
Salvatore Citraro, Michael S. Vitevitch, Massimo Stella, Giulio Rossetti


Knowledge in the human mind exhibits a dualistic vector/network nature. Modelling words as vectors is key to natural language processing, whereas networks of word associations can map the nature of semantic memory. We reconcile these paradigms - fragmented across linguistics, psychology and computer science - by introducing FEature-Rich MUltiplex LEXical (FERMULEX) networks. This novel framework merges structural similarities in networks and vector features of words, which can be combined or explored independently. Similarities model heterogenous word associations across semantic/syntactic/phonological aspects of knowledge. Words are enriched with multi-dimensional feature embeddings including frequency, age of acquisition, length and polysemy. These aspects enable unprecedented explorations of cognitive knowledge. Through CHILDES data, we use FERMULEX networks to model normative language acquisition by 1000 toddlers between 18 and 30 months. Similarities and embeddings capture word homophily via conformity, which measures assortative mixing via distance and features. Conformity unearths a language kernel of frequent/polysemous/short nouns and verbs key for basic sentence production, supporting recent evidence of children's syntactic constructs emerging at 30 months. This kernel is invisible to network core-detection and feature-only clustering: It emerges from the dual vector/network nature of words. Our quantitative analysis reveals two key strategies in early word learning. Modelling word acquisition as random walks on FERMULEX topology, we highlight non-uniform filling of communicative developmental inventories (CDIs). Conformity-based walkers lead to accurate (75%), precise (55%) and partially well-recalled (34%) predictions of early word learning in CDIs, providing quantitative support to previous empirical findings and developmental theories.

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