Analyzing distributional learning of phonemic categories in unsupervised deep neural networks


Infants’ speech perception adapts to the phonemic categories of their native language, a process assumed to be driven by the distributional properties of speech. This study investigates whether deep neural networks (DNNs), the current state-of-the-art in distributional feature learning, are capable of learning phoneme-like representations of speech in an unsupervised manner. We trained DNNs with unlabeled and labeled speech and analyzed the activations of each layer with respect to the phones in the input segments. The analyses reveal that the emergence of phonemic invariance in DNNs is dependent on the availability of phonemic labeling of the input during the training. No increased phonemic selectivity of the hidden layers was observed in the purely unsupervised networks despite successful learning of low-dimensional representations for speech. This suggests that additional learning constraints or more sophisticated models are needed to account for the emergence of phone-like categories in distributional learning operating on natural speech.

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