The Penn lambda calculator: Pedagogical software for natural language semantics

This paper describes a novel pedagogical software program that can be seen as an online companion to one of the standard textbooks of formal natural language semantics, Heim and Kratzer (1998). The Penn Lambda Calculator is a multifunctional application designed for use in standard graduate and undergraduate introductions to formal semantics: Teachers can use the application to demonstrate complex semantic derivations in the classroom and modify them interactively, and students can use it to work on problem sets provided by the teacher. The program supports demonstrations and exercises in two main areas: (1) performing beta reduction in the simply typed lambda calculus; (2) application of the bottom-up algorithm for computing the compositional semantics of natural language syntax trees. The program is able to represent the full range of phenomena covered in the Heim and Kratzer textbook by function application, predicate modification, and lambda abstraction. This includes phenomena such as intersective adjectives, relative clauses and quantifier raising. In the student use case, emphasis has been placed on providing “live” feedback for incorrect answers. Heuristics are used to detect the most frequent student errors and to return specific, interactive suggestions.
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