Lila Gleitman, Who Showed How Children Learn Language, Dies at 91


Lila Gleitman, whose pioneering work in linguistics and cognitive science expanded our understanding of how language works and the way youngsters go about studying it, died on Aug. 8 at a hospital in Philadelphia. She was 91.

Her daughter Claire Gleitman mentioned the trigger was a coronary heart assault.

Until the 1970s, most linguists believed that the construction of language existed out on the planet, and that the human mind then discovered it from infancy. Building on the work of her buddy Noam Chomsky, Dr. Gleitman argued the alternative: that the constructions, or syntax, of language have been hard-wired into the mind from delivery, and that youngsters already had a classy grasp of how they work.

“The study of language acquisition, her primary scientific concern, was her field in a special sense,” Dr. Chomsky said in a statement. “She virtually created the field in its modern form and led in its impressive development ever since.”

Dr. Chomsky, who like Dr. Gleitman obtained his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, devised the speculation. But it was Dr. Gleitman who found out elegant methods to check it in the actual world, beginning together with her personal youngsters.

She appreciated to recount a narrative about her daughter Claire, then 2 years previous. One day when she was driving and Claire was within the automobile, Dr. Gleitman took a pointy flip and mentioned, “Hold on tight.” Her daughter instantly replied, “Isn’t that tightly?” The utterance confirmed how even a toddler may perceive linguistic nuances, with out having been taught them.

Dr. Gleitman referred to as the method “syntactic bootstrapping” — the usage of an innate grasp of linguistic construction and its relationship to which means to determine new phrases.

“The kid is really partly discovering what he knows from a complex code in which language is hidden,” she said in a 2013 interview.

Dr. Gleitman usually collaborated together with her husband, the psychologist Henry Gleitman, and together with her graduate college students, lots of whom went on to develop into main linguists themselves.

With Barbara Landau, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, she confirmed how even blind youngsters have been capable of study “sighted” phrases like “look” and “see” — not by experiencing them on the planet, however by inferring their which means from their syntactic and semantic contexts. She performed comparable analysis on deaf college students with one other former scholar, 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 to who we are as humans,” Dr. Goldin-Meadow mentioned in an interview.

Lila Ruth Lichtenberg was born on Dec. 10, 1929, within the Sheepshead Bay part of Brooklyn. Her father, Ben, was a structural engineer, and her mom, Fanny (Segal) Lichtenberg, was a homemaker.

Lila attended James Madison High School, which educated generations of Brooklyn’s Jews, together with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Senators Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders, the economist Gary Becker and Judith Sheindlin, finest often known as tv’s Judge Judy.

She graduated from Antioch College in Ohio with a level in literature in 1952 and moved to New York, the place she took a job as an editorial assistant at the Journal of the American Water Works Association. Just a few years later she married Eugene Galanter, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved to Philadelphia. That marriage resulted in divorce.

She married Dr. Gleitman, at the time a professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, in 1958. He died in 2015. Along together with her daughter Claire, she is survived by one other daughter, Ellen Luchette, and 4 grandchildren.

As a school spouse, Dr. Gleitman may take programs at no price, and she or he immersed herself within the classics. But she discovered her research boring, apart from Greek and Latin.

She entered a doctoral monitor in linguistics, learning beneath Zellig Harris, himself a pioneer within the computational research of language, analyzing its deep constructions and logic. She additionally took a job at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, the place a part of her work concerned writing entries associated to psychology for the subsequent version of Webster’s Dictionary — together with one for a crude time period referring to sexual activity, which had by no means earlier than appeared within the guide.

“Forever I have taken it as my chief accomplishment in life,” she mentioned in a 2017 interview with Dr. Goldin-Meadow.

Despite turning into considered one of Dr. Harris’s finest college students, Dr. Gleitman was more and more drawn to the work of considered one of his main acolytes, Dr. Chomsky, who was within the strategy of a elementary break along with his mentor.

Human language wasn’t one thing that existed separate from the human thoughts, Dr. Chomsky argued; quite, it was innate, hard-wired, already there at delivery. Dr. Gleitman agreed, and likewise broke with Dr. Harris — a cut up so bitter that he refused to supervise her dissertation.

Nevertheless, Dr. Gleitman obtained her doctorate in 1967 and commenced educating at Swarthmore. She returned to the University of Pennsylvania in 1972 and remained there till her retirement in 2002.

She didn’t, nonetheless, cease working. In reality, the final 20 years of her life have been a few of her most intellectually fertile.

Working with a colleague, John Trueswell, Dr. Gleitman studied first how youngsters study “hard” phrases — verbs, conceptual nouns — after which circled and seemed at how they study concrete nouns and different “easy” phrases, which she argued weren’t as straightforward as they could appear.

Dr. Gleitman continued to provide new work lately, even after macular degeneration left her practically blind. Dr. Trueswell mentioned that the final e-mail he obtained from her arrived the day earlier than she died. It was a brief be aware catching him up on her newest paper. She had simply submitted it for publication.



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