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I was discussing machine translation (MT) with a friend of mine, a fellow linguist, the other day, trying to see how a computer could acquire enough information to be able to do a fairly accurate job. The big thing, of course, is meaning. But, from a MT point of view, this pretty much amounts mapping one language onto another (I’m simplifying, of course). This brought about the big question: what is needed to learn a language?
What does a child need, a priori, to be able to start learning, to pick up its first language? In other words, what innate knowledge or ability is required, as a bare minimum (besides, of course, the ability to process inputs from our senses)?
First of all, I’d say we need the notion of communication, that the sounds mean something. Or does observation tell us that? Do we only need to see (hear) that specific sound patterns are related to interactions?
Pattern recognition is a pretty obvious choice for bare requirement. The ability to extract patterns from the flow of sounds. Even before birth, the foetus can distinguish language from noise, and even recognize the sounds of its mother tongue. Studies have shown that the foetus is equipped to recognize patters, be they (for hearing) in music or language. By three and a half month, babies can separate words in a sentence; the phonological word comes before meaning. The brain sees the physical patterns (sound waves) before tackling conceptual ones (meanings).
Generalization and particularization: the ability to come to a general concept based on observation of particular instances, and conversely, to extract an instance from a general idea. This is pretty much relation to pattern recognition.
Am I missing something? Do we need anything else?