Azerbaijan International

Spring 1998 (6.1)
Pages 70-71

How Kids Learn Language
Student from Azerbaijan Wins
Westinghouse Science Award

by Jean Patterson

Ann KromskyHow do young children progress from babbling and repeating simple words, to putting together complete sentences? Linguists disagree about how this happens. Most insist that humans have an innate or biological ability to learn languages.

Ann Kromsky, a 17-year-old California high school student from Baku, has conducted research that casts doubt on that theory. It also has netted her a $10,000 scholarship for her seventh place finish in this year's USA Westinghouse Science Talent Search which was announced on March 8, 1998, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Ann Kromsky with posters describing her language project.

With the help of University of California at Riverside (UCR) professor Curt Burgess, Kromsky created a computer model, called "HAL Jr," to study children's acquisition of language. HAL Jr. is based on the prototype of HAL (Hyperspace Analogue Language) which models adult language.

Kromsky and Chomsky
Kromsky's findings pit her up against the likes of Noam Chomsky, 70, world-renown linguist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT), who is the leading proponent for an innate-based learning theory. But Kromsky suggests that since a computer is mathematical and can only compute, it would follow that if language is just biologically based, then a computer model would not be able to learn it.

Kromsky's computer model was "fed" 1.7 million words that had been spoken by preschool-aged children, ages 2-6. Kromsky found this collection of words on the Internet from the Childes Data Base, a research study conducted at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The words had been collected from children of different ages, races and backgrounds.

Using a mathematical formula, she programmed the computer to group words with similar meanings and uses. According to Kromsky, the computer seems to "learn" the meaning of a word often after only two or three exposures in its natural context. She was also surprised to find how quickly ungrammatical structures, such as words like "wanna" and "gotta," were categorized and assigned meaning so quickly.

From this information, HAL Jr. constructed a two-dimensional map for its 6,000-word vocabulary. Words that had similar meanings were clustered together more closely on the map. For example, words for food were in a different corner than words for toys. "Muffin," "cookie" and "bread" were very close together on the map, even though the definitions for these words had not been fed to the computer. HAL Jr. could even distinguish between nouns, verbs and adjectives. According to Kromsky, this shows that children learn language from hearing it, and that there is a mathematical basis for language.

Discovering how humans learn languages can help us understand how the mind "maps" or categorizes new languages and should result, among other things, in saving us lots of time in learning new languages.

Westinghouse Prize
Kromsky has had considerable experience learning new languages herself. English is her third language. She started learning it only four years ago when she moved to the United States with her younger brother and her parents, Alexander and Marina Kromsky. A native Russian speaker, she also knows some Ukrainian since her grandmother whom she used to visit in summers lived in the Ukraine. She also has studied French and Azeri.

Kromsky's project was up against stiff competition in the Westinghouse Search, now in its 57th year. About 1,500 U.S. high school students qualify for the competition each year. Each year the top 40 entries are named as finalists and are invited to Washington D.C. to present their research, meet leading scientists and undergo a further round of interviews so that the top ten projects can be chosen.

The projects came from various scientific fields: theoretical physics, medicine, genetics, mathematics, chemistry, and, as with Kromsky's project, psychology. The top winner receives a $40,000 scholarship. This year's winner was a 17-year-old mathematician from Indiana who studied the properties of polynomials.

Even being picked as one of the 40 finalists was "mind-boggling" for Ann. She received the news early one morning in February. "They called from the East coast. Since I had just awakened, I wondered who was calling me so early in the morning. I couldn't believe it. I kept saying, 'Are you kidding me?' You have to understand that this is like the Nobel Prize for high school students."

It wasn't the first time Kromsky had won a science competition. In 1996, she took first place at the California Science and Technology Museum contest and won $4,000 in scholarships.

Outside the university computer laboratory, where her classmates always think she's older than she actually is, Kromsky enjoys singing with a Madrigal group at high school. Her initial interest in music began in Azerbaijan.

So what does a Westinghouse award-winner do next? Many of the finalists from previous years have gone on to become professors and research scientists, some have even gone on to win prestigious honors such as the Nobel Prize, MacArthur Foundation Fellowships (the so-called "genius awards"), Sloan Research Fellows, Fields Medal for mathematics or membership into the National Academy of Sciences or National Academy of Engineering.

Already, several graduate students and Ph.D. candidates are expanding on ideas that Kromsky pioneered. After finishing high school, she plans to enroll in a university. She's not sure which one yet-there's been lots of offers. Possibly, she'll continue in medicine or neurology. Wherever she goes, however, the likelihood is great that her contribution in the field of language acquisition will continue-and that HAL Jr. is just a forerunner of things to come.

From Azerbaijan International (6.1) Spring 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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