continuous space language models

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In certain fields of study such as speech recognition or machine translation, for some acoustic signal [math]\,x[/math] or the source sentence to be translated [math]\,e[/math], it is common to model these problems as finding the sequence of words [math]\,w^*[/math] that has the highest probability of occurring given [math]\,x[/math] or [math]\,e[/math]. This can be written as:

[math]w^* = arg\ \underset {w}{max} P(w|x) = arg\ \underset{w}{max} P(x|w)P(w)[/math]

An acoustic or translation model can then be used for [math]\,P(x|w)[/math], similar to the idea behind LDA and QDA, and it remains to create a language model [math]\,P(w)[/math] to estimate the probability of any sequence of words [math]\,w[/math].

This is commonly done through the back-off n-grams model and the purpose behind this research paper is to use a neural network to better estimate [math]\,P(w)[/math].

Back-off n-grams Model

A sequence of words will be defined as [math]\,w^i_1=(w_1,w_2,\dots,w_i)[/math] and the formula for the probability [math]\,P(w)[/math] can be rewritten as:

[math]P(w^n_1)=P(w_1,w_2,\dots,w_n)=P(w_1)\prod_{i=2}^n P(w_i|w^{i-1}_1)[/math]

It is common to estimate [math]\,P(w_i|w^{i-1}_1)[/math] through:

[math]\,P(w_i|w^{i-1}_1)\approx\frac{\mbox{number of occurrence of the sequence} (w_1,\dots,w_i)}{\mbox{number of occurrence of the sequence} (w_1,\dots,w_{i-1})}[/math]

However, it is practically impossible to have a training set large enough to contain every possible sequence of words if the sequence is long enough and some sequences would have an incorrect probability of 0 simply because it is not in the training set. This is known as the data sparseness problem. This problem is commonly resolved by considering only the last n-1 words instead of the whole context. However, even for small n, certain sequences could still be missing.

To solve this issue, a technique called back-off n-grams is used and the general formula goes as follows:

[math]\,P(w_i|w^{i-1}_1) = \begin{cases} \frac{\mbox{number of occurrence of the sequence}\ (w_1,\dots,w_i)}{\mbox{number of occurrence of the sequence}\ (w_1,\dots,w_{i-1})}, & \mbox{if number of occurrence of}\ (w_1,\dots,w_i)\ \mbox{is greater than some constant K} \\ \alpha P(w_i|w^{i-1}_2), & \mbox{otherwise} \end{cases}[/math]

[math]\,\alpha[/math] is typically a discounting factor that is less than 1 to account for the lack of direct data. It usually depends on the word sequence.

The general algorithm is then, if the data set does contain the sequence then calculate probability directly. Otherwise, apply a discounting factor and calculate the conditional probability with the first word in the sequence removed. For example, if the word sequence was "The dog barked" and it did not exist in the training set then the formula would be written as:

[math]\,P(\mbox{barked}|\mbox{the,dog}) \approx \alpha P(\mbox{barked}|\mbox{dog})[/math]


The researchers for this paper sought to find a better model for this probability than the back-off n-grams model. Their approach was to map the n-1 words sequence onto a multi-dimension continuous space using a layer of neural network followed by another layer to estimate the probabilities of all possible next words. The formulas and model goes as follows:

For some sequence of n-1 words, encode each word using 1 of K encoding, i.e. 1 where the word is indexed and zero everywhere else. Label each 1 of K encoding by [math](w_{j-n+1},\dots,w_j)[/math] for some n-1 word sequence at the j'th word in some larger context.

Let P be a projection matrix common to all n-1 words and let


Let H be the weight matrix from the projection layer to the hidden layer and the state of H would be:

[math]\,h=tanh(Ha + b)[/math] where A is the concatenation of all [math]\,a_i[/math] and [math]\,b[/math] is some bias vector

Finally, the output vector would be:

[math]\,o=Vh+k[/math] where V is the weight matrix from hidden to output and k is another bias vector. [math]\,o[/math] would be a vector with same dimensions as the total vocabulary size and the probabilities can be calculated from [math]\,o[/math] by applying the softmax function.

Optimization and Training

The training was done with standard back-propagation on minimizing the error function:

[math]\,E=\sum_{i=1}^N t_i\ log p_i + \epsilon(\sum_{i,j}h^2_{ij}+\sum_{i,j}v^2_{ij})[/math]

[math]\,t_i[/math] is the desired output vector and the summations inside the epsilon bracket are regularization terms to prevent overfitting of [math]\,H[/math] and [math]\,V[/math].

The researchers used stochastic gradient descent to prevent having to sum over millions of examples worth of error and this sped up training time.

An issue the researchers ran into using this model was that it took a long time to calculate language model probabilities compared to traditional back-off n-grams model and reduced its suitability for real time predictions. To solve this issue, several optimization techniques were used.

Lattice rescoring

It is common to keep track of additional possible solutions instead of just the most obviously likely solution in a lattice structure, i.e. a tree like structure where branches can merge and each branch represents a possible solution. For example from the paper using a tri-gram model, i.e. predict third word from first two words, the following lattice structure was formed:


Any particular branch where two nodes have the same words can be merged. For example, "a,problem" was merged in the middle of the lattice because the tri-gram model would estimate the same probability at the point for both branch. Similary, "that_is,not" and "there_is,not" cannot be merged before the preceding two words to predict with are different.

After this structure is created with a traditional back-off n-grams model, the neural network is then used to re-score the lattice and the re-scored lattice is used to make predictions.

Short List

In any language, there is usually a small set of commonly used words that form almost all of written or spoken thought. The short-list idea is that rather than calculating every single probability for even the rarest words, the neural network only calculates a small subset of the most common words. This way, the output vector can be significantly shrunk from [math]\,\mbox{N}[/math] to some much smaller number [math]\,\mbox{S}[/math].

If any rare words do occur, their probabilities are calculated using the traditional back-off n-grams model. The formula then goes as follows from the paper:


Where L is the event that [math]\,w_t[/math] is in the short-list.

Sorting and Bunch

The neural network predicts all the probabilities based on some sequence of words. If the probability of two different sequences of words are required but their relationship is such that for sequence 1, [math]\,w=(w_1,\dots,w_{i-1},w_i)[/math] and sequence 2, [math]\,w^'=(w_1,\dots,w_{i-1},w^'_i)[/math], they differ only in the last word. Then only a single feed through the neural network is required. This is because the output vector using the context [math]\,(w_1,\dots,w_{i-1})[/math] would predict the probabilities for both [math]\,w_i[/math] and [math]\,w^'_i[/math] being next. Therefore it is efficient to merge any sequence who have the same context.

Modern day computers are also very optimized for linear algebra and it is more efficient to run multiple examples at the same time through the matrix equations. The researchers called this bunching and simple testing showed that this decreased processing time by a factor of 10 when using 128 examples at once compared to 1.

Training and Usage

The researchers used numerous optimization techniques during training and their results were summarized in the paper as follows:

File:fast training.PNG

Since the model only trains to predict based on the last n-1 words, at certain points there will be less than n-1 words and adjustments must be made. The researchers considered two possibilities, using traditional models for these n-grams or filling up the n-k words with some filler word up to n-1. After some testing, they found that requests for small n-gram probabilities were pretty low and they decided to use traditional back-off n-gram model for these cases.


In general the results were quite good. When this neural network + back-off n-grams hybrid was used in combination with a number of acoustic speech recognition models, they found that perplexity, lower the better, decreased by about 10% in a number of cases compared with traditional back-off n-grams only model. Some of their results are summarized as follows:





Schwenk, H. Continuous space language models. Computer Speech Lang. 21, 492–518 (2007). ISIArticle