Studying the Inductive Biases of RNNs with Synthetic Variations of Natural Languages

NAACL 2019  ·  Shauli Ravfogel, Yoav Goldberg, Tal Linzen ·

How do typological properties such as word order and morphological case marking affect the ability of neural sequence models to acquire the syntax of a language? Cross-linguistic comparisons of RNNs' syntactic performance (e.g., on subject-verb agreement prediction) are complicated by the fact that any two languages differ in multiple typological properties, as well as by differences in training corpus. We propose a paradigm that addresses these issues: we create synthetic versions of English, which differ from English in one or more typological parameters, and generate corpora for those languages based on a parsed English corpus. We report a series of experiments in which RNNs were trained to predict agreement features for verbs in each of those synthetic languages. Among other findings, (1) performance was higher in subject-verb-object order (as in English) than in subject-object-verb order (as in Japanese), suggesting that RNNs have a recency bias; (2) predicting agreement with both subject and object (polypersonal agreement) improves over predicting each separately, suggesting that underlying syntactic knowledge transfers across the two tasks; and (3) overt morphological case makes agreement prediction significantly easier, regardless of word order.

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