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Zuidema, Willem


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Willem Zuidema. Ph.D. from University of Edinburgh, UK. Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science and Computational Linguistics at the University of Amsterdam.

Theme Group Fellow (1 April 2017 - 30 June 2017) 

Models of Artificial and Iterated Language Learning: Unravelling How Language and Languages Emerged

Project Description

Although at the level of the language system human language is clearly unique and fundamentally different from all known animal communication systems, at the neural level and at the level of learning and processing mechanisms it is difficult to identify uniquely human components. This paradox might be resolved if we (i) find small but significant differences in some of these mechanisms, and (ii) show that such small differences can have observed major consequences. Much of the cross-species comparisons in Artificial Grammar Learning can be seen as addressing the first of these challenges. Computational models are being used to test predictions of how such mechanisms might operate. In my individual project I will review the findings in this area, in collaboration with the other team members, and further refine computational models that address both the first and the second of these challenges. The key insight here -- from an approach known as 'iterated learning' -- is that cultural evolution can kick in in a learned communication system that is transmitted culturally from generation to generation. This might shape the communication system to become much more complex and allow small differences in the learning and processing mechanisms to have large consequences. It thus provides an additional and novel window on the evolution of rule learning. In my project, and in the interactions with the other NLTG members, I will bring together empirical  findings and modelling results from a variety of fields and start working on a book-length discussion of these issues.

Selected Publications

1. Martin Rohrmeier, Willem Zuidema, Geraint Wiggins and Constance Scharff (2015), Principles of structure building in music, language and animal song (Proceedings Royal Society – B).

2. Bjorn Merker, Willem Zuidema and Iain Cross (2015), Five fundamental constraints on theories of the origin of music (Proceedings Royal Society – B).

3. Van Heijningen, De Visser, Zuidema and Ten Cate (2009), Simple rules can explain discrimination of putative recursive syntactic structures by a songbird species, Proceeding National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS), vol. 106, no. 48, pp.20538-20543.

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