The Acquisition of Syntactic Knowledge

From Artificial Intelligence Series

The Acquisition of Syntactic Knowledge

By Robert C. Berwick





This landmark work in computational linguistics is of great importance both theoretically and practically because it shows that much of English grammar can be learned by a simple program. The Acquisition of Syntactic Knowledge investigates the central questions of human and machine cognition: How do people learn language? How can we get a machine to learn language? It first presents an explicit computational model of language acquisition which can actually learn rules of English syntax given a sequence of grammatical, but otherwise unprepared, sentences. It shows that natural languages are designed to be easily learned and easily processed-an exciting breakthrough from the point of view of artificial intelligence and the design of expert systems because it shows how extensive knowledge might be acquired automatically, without outside intervention. Computationally, the book demonstrates how constraints that may be reasonably assumed to aid sentence processing also aid language acquisition. Chapters in the book's second part apply computational methods to the general problem of developmental growth, particularly the thorny problem of the interaction between innate genetic endowment and environmental input, with the intent of uncovering the constraints on the acquisition of syntactic knowledge. A number of "mini-theories" of learning are incorporated in this study of syntax with results that should appeal to a wide range of scholarly interests. These include how lexical categories, phonological rule systems, and phrase structure rules are learned; the role of semantic-syntactic interaction in language acquisition; how a "parameter setting" model may be formalized as a learning procedure; how multiple constraints (from syntax, thematic knowledge, or phrase structure) interact to aid acquisition; how transformational-type rules may be learned; and, the role of lexical ambiguity in language acquisition.

The Acquisition of Syntactic Knowledge is sixteenth in the Artificial Intelligence Series, edited by Patrick Winston and Michael Brady.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262022262 380 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • The work is unusual in its combination of formal understanding and precision, easy command of the relevant empirical materials and theoretical ideas in linguistics, and sharp analysis, which sheds a good deal of light on many questions of much current concern.

    Noam Chomsky

    Linguistics and Philosophy, MIT

  • An outstanding, path-breaking work on the computational appraoch to language acquisition. It is full of insights and good ideas. Berwick is wide-ranging in the resources he brings to bear on the problem. I recommend this book quite highly to anyone interested in rigorous computational theory applied to the real problems of language acquisition.

    Kenneth Wexler

    School of Social Sciences, University of California