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Huteng Dai successfully defends his dissertation

We are pleased to announce that Huteng Dai passed his dissertation defense on March 22!

Title: Phonological learning in the presence of lexical exceptions
Committee: Adam Jardine (chair), Bruce Tesar, Adam McCollum, Richard Futrell (University of California Irvine)


This dissertation focuses on a fundamental linguistic question: how do children acquire sound patterns from noisy, real-world data, especially in the presence of lexical exceptions that defy regular patterns? For instance, Turkish infants tune into vowel harmony patterns as early as six months, despite lexical exceptions from disharmonic loanwords. This dissertation demonstrates that phonological learning is facilitated by two essential elements: (1) a restrictive hypothesis space defined by formal language theory and (2) an exception-filtering mechanism. I developed a learning model that harnesses the discrete nature of categorical grammars to filter out lexical exceptions based on statistical criteria adapted from probabilistic models. This hybrid model learns interpretable grammars that approximate acceptability judgments in behavioral experiments, demonstrating robust performance across diverse real-world corpora from English, Polish, and Turkish. Moreover, the dissertation integrates the proposed phonotactic model into learning morpho-phonological alternations. This approach is not only competitive on real-world corpora but also substantiated by experimental evidence. This dissertation establishes a research program that uses computational modeling as a testbed for theories of phonological learning.

Huteng Dai (center) with dissertation committee members Prof. Adam Jardine (right) and Prof. Bruce Tesar (left)
Huteng Dai (center) with dissertation committee members Prof. Adam Jardine (right) and Prof. Bruce Tesar (left)

🎉Congratulations, Dr. Dai! 🎉