Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 26 (NIPS 2013)
Nathaniel J. Smith, Noah Goodman, Michael Frank
Language users are remarkably good at making inferences about speakers' intentions in context, and children learning their native language also display substantial skill in acquiring the meanings of unknown words. These two cases are deeply related: Language users invent new terms in conversation, and language learners learn the literal meanings of words based on their pragmatic inferences about how those words are used. While pragmatic inference and word learning have both been independently characterized in probabilistic terms, no current work unifies these two. We describe a model in which language learners assume that they jointly approximate a shared, external lexicon and reason recursively about the goals of others in using this lexicon. This model captures phenomena in word learning and pragmatic inference; it additionally leads to insights about the emergence of communicative systems in conversation and the mechanisms by which pragmatic inferences become incorporated into word meanings.