Lila Gleitman, who showed how kids learn language, dies at 91


Lila Gleitman, whose pioneering work in linguistics and cognitive science broadened our understanding of how language works and how children learn it, died Aug. 8 in a Philadelphia hospital. She was 91 years old.

His daughter Claire Gleitman said the cause was a heart attack.

Until the 1970s, most linguists believed that the structure of language existed in the world and that the human brain then learned it from childhood. Drawing on the work of his friend Noam Chomsky, Dr Gleitman argued the opposite: that the structures, or syntax, of language are embedded in the brain from birth, and that children already have a sophisticated understanding of their language. functioning.

“The study of language acquisition, his main scientific concern, was his field in a particular sense”, Dr Chomsky said in a press release. “She virtually created the estate in its modern form and has led its impressive development since then.”

Dr. Chomsky, who like Dr. Gleitman obtained his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, devised the theory. But it was Dr. Gleitman who found stylish ways to test it out in the real world, starting with his own children.

She loved to tell a story about her 2-year-old daughter Claire. One day while she was driving and Claire was in the car, Dr. Gleitman took a sharp turn and said, “Hold on. Her daughter immediately replied, “Isn’t that tight? The statement showed how even a toddler could understand linguistic nuances without having learned them.

Dr. Gleitman called the process “syntactic priming” – the use of an innate understanding of linguistic structure and its relationship to meaning to find new words.

“The kid really discovers part of what he knows from a complex code in which the language is hidden”, she said in an interview in 2013.

Dr. Gleitman has often collaborated with her husband, psychologist Henry Gleitman, and with her graduate students, many of whom have become leading linguists themselves.

With Barbara Landau, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, she showed how even blind children were able to learn “sighted” words like “look” and “see” – not by experiencing them in the world, but by deducing their meaning from their syntax. and semantic contexts. She conducted similar research on deaf students with another former student, Susan Goldin-Meadow, now at the University of Chicago.

“She believed that language learning was not just the accumulation of facts over time, but that it was inherent in who we are as humans,” said Dr Goldin-Meadow in an interview.

Lila Ruth Lichtenberg was born on December 10, 1929 in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. Her father, Ben, was a structural engineer and her mother, Fanny (Segal) Lichtenberg, was a housewife.

Lila attended James Madison High School, which educated generations of Brooklyn Jews including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Senators Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders, economist Gary Becker and Judith Sheindlin, better known as Judge Judy at the television.

She graduated from Antioch College in Ohio with a degree in literature in 1952 and moved to New York City, where she served as an editorial assistant at the Journal of the American Water Works Association. A few years later, she married Eugene Galanter, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved to Philadelphia. This marriage ended in divorce.

She married Dr. Gleitman, then a professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, in 1958. He died in 2015. With her daughter Claire, she is survived by another daughter, Ellen Luchette, and four grandchildren.

As a teacher’s wife, Dr. Gleitman was able to take classes for free and she immersed herself in the classics. But she found her studies boring, except for Greek and Latin.

She entered a doctoral course in linguistics, under the supervision of Zellig Harris, himself a pioneer in the computational study of language, analyzing its deep structures and its logic. She also took a job at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, where part of her job was to write psychology-related articles for the next edition of the Webster Dictionary – including one for a coarse term referencing to intercourse, which had never been previously published in the book. .

“Forever, I considered it my main accomplishment in life,” she said in a 2017 interview with Dr. Goldin-Meadow.

Although he became one of Dr Harris’ best students, Dr Gleitman was increasingly drawn to the work of one of his main acolytes, Dr Chomsky, who was fundamentally breaking with his mentor.

Human language was not something that existed separately from the human mind, argued Dr. Chomsky; it was rather innate, wired, already there at birth. Dr Gleitman agreed and broke up with Dr Harris as well – a break so bitter that he refused to supervise his thesis.

Nonetheless, Dr Gleitman received his doctorate in 1967 and began teaching at Swarthmore. She returned to the University of Pennsylvania in 1972 and remained there until her retirement in 2002.

However, she did not stop working. In fact, the last two decades of his life have been among the most intellectually fertile.

Working with colleague John Trueswell, Dr Gleitman first studied how children learn “hard” words – verbs, conceptual nouns – then turned around and examined how they learn concrete nouns and other words. “Easy,” which she said weren’t as easy as it sounds.

Dr Gleitman has continued to produce new work in recent years, even after macular degeneration left her nearly blind. Dr Trueswell said the last email he received from her arrived the day before she died. It was a short note catching up with him on his last article. She had just submitted it for publication.


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