After the Christmas holidays, I will once again have a look at multilingual BERT. I already discussed multilingual BERT on this blog once when I reviewed a paper that explored some cross-lingual and multilingual properties of multilingual BERT. This week’s paper does more in-depth experiments and shows that some of the outcomes of the previous paper were not correct. The title of the paper is Cross-lingual Ability of Multilingual BERT: An Empirical Study was done at the University of Pennsylvania and will be published at this year’s ICLR conference.

Multilingual BERT is a neural network that provides dense numerical sentence representation for 104 languages. During training, the model learns to guess what words were left out in the input and if two sentences follow each other in a coherent text or not. This is done with millions of sentences in 104 languages without telling the model what the language is.

Training BERT

One of the main reasons why we develop such multilingual representations is that we would like to be able to transfer solutions from one language (for which we have enough data) into other languages (for which the data do not exist). For example, imagine you have manually annotated offensive tweets in, for instance, English and French and you would like to classify the tweets in other languages as well. With a high-quality multilingual representation, you could train a model using the English and French data and (given the multilingual representation is good enough) it would automatically work on other languages as well (this is sometimes called a zero-shot transfer). However, we are not there yet.

Multilingual BERT is far from being perfect, but it is actually pretty good at this (until recently, it was the best thing we have). Quite embarrassingly, we do not really know how and why it works (and by we I mean the research community). The exploratory paper I reviewed in MT Weekly 15 probes multilingual BERT on various tasks such as named entity recognition or cross-lingual sentence retrieval makes some interesting observations. The results of their experiments suggest two aspects play an important role:

  1. Vocabulary overlap: many sub-words mean the same in many languages (numbers, proper names, professional terminology).

  2. Structural similarity of languages.

The paper I am going to review today takes a different approach. Instead of treating multilingual BERT as a black box and doing experiments with it, they broke it into small pieces. Instead of a single large model for 104 languages, they trained only bilingual models and explored details of the training process to find out where the multilinguality comes from. Their language pairs were English with Spanish, Hindi, and Russian.

The tasks on which they tested the bilingual models are named entity recognition (highlighting names of people, locations, numbers, etc.) and natural language inference (telling if a sentence entails from another, or they contradict each other, or have nothing in common). The task-specific model is always trained using English and tested on the other language from the pair.

To test the hypothesis about the lexical overlap helping the multilinguality, they used a fake vocabulary for English, so that it does not share anything with the other language from the pair, not even numbers or punctuation (they basically used a “secret alphabet”). The experiments showed that the vocabulary overlap does not matter at all. It is also obvious from the results that language similarity indeed matters—everything you learn on “secret” English can be applied to real English, but since the similarity is quite hard to quantify (or even conceptualize), the authors do not say more about it.

If the models do not benefit from sharing subwords, there is no reason not to try another text segmentations. But surprise: sub-word tokenization still leads to better results than using both words or characters. Given that typography is a pure convention, it should not be surprising that neither words nor characters are the optimal input units for statistical processing. Nevertheless, it is stunning that subwords are so much better: segmentation into subwords is based on simple statistical heuristics (characters that appear most frequently together other get grouped and that is basically it) which is not in any way optimized towards the neural network that uses them.

There are also other interesting observations. The deeper the network the better cross-lingual performance you get. Another interesting observation is that the cross-lingual language inference works better when both sentences being compared are in one language than when one of the sentences is in English and the other is in the second language.

The paper sheds some light on what helps the models to be more language agnostic, but there is still a gap between the in-language and cross-language performance. The open question is how to make the multilingual models more language-agnostic which will be in my opinion one of the most important research questions in natural language processing in 2020.