ᐊᒥᓲᕗᑦ ᐱᔭᕆᐊᑐᔪᑦ ᓴᖅᑭᓂᐊᖅᑐᑦ ᓯᕗᓂᒃᓴᒥ | Coursework 3

From its beginnings, one of the attractions of statistical machine translation has been the ability to create a new system in a very brief period of time, perhaps as little as a day. All that is required is a parallel text. This is now reality: since its initial launch almost eleven years ago Google Translate has grown to support 10,506 language pairs, meaning that on average, new language pairs are added at a frequency of once every nine hours.

This capability is useful for more than users of free translation services. In some situations, it is useful to assemble parallel data and create machine translation systems—even rudimentary ones—in a very short period of time. For example, following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, a large team of volunteers quickly assembled a new machine translation system between Haitian Creole and English, in order to assist with relief efforts.1

Although it is not possible to predict earthquakes or most other natural disasters, it is possible to prepare for them. MT developers had already practiced for the Haiti earthquake through participation in surprise language exercises, in which teams were asked to develop MT systems from scratch in very brief periods of time, using whatever resources they could assemble. For example, in 2003, a research team quickly assembled an MT system for Cebuano, an Austronesian language spoken by around 25 million people in the Philippines.2 One important lesson from creating MT for new language pairs is that they often highlight specific difficulties of MT models, often of the sort that are not highlighted by working solely on high-resource Indo-European language pairs.

In coursework 2 you learned about the basic components of state-of-the-art neural machine translation. But there are many things that we don’t know about how neural machine translation will behave on new languages. In this coursework, your task is to contribute to scientific knowledge about neural machine translation by exploring its application to one of two languages for which there are no published NMT results:

  1. Hungarian is a Uralic language spoken by 13 million people, and an official language of the European Union. It has several features that make it quite different from most Indo-European languages, including vowel harmony, topic prominence, and agglutinative morphology. Our data consists of film subtitles, which are somewhat noisier than news or parliamentary texts. Google Translate handles Hungarian, but as of this writing, it still uses phrase-based MT.3 Other recent neural MT experiments with European languages have not included Hungarian, though one is planned for later this year.

  2. Inuktitut is an Inuit language native to northern Canada. It is spoken by about 35,000 people; most are native speakers and many are monolingual. Inuktitut is polysynthetic. Our data comes from the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut, which publishes its Hansard in both English and Inuktitut. Despite the availability of this high-quality parallel corpus, Inuktitut is not included in Google Translate.

We will give you a baseline NMT system for both languages. Your task is to choose a language, analyze the output of the baseline system, identify some way it might be improved and a method to improve it, and then implement and carefully experiment with your method. The method you choose does not need to be novel—it could be something we talked about in class. Since there is no prior art for these languages, we will still learn something interesting from a comparison of existing methods, and indeed there are existing methods that are likely to be quite helpful for these languages. However, you are also welcome to develop novel approaches. Your sole deliverable for this coursework will be a report explaining your analysis, approach, and results.

Code, data, and other resources

First, get code and data that we have provided.

git clone https://github.com/INFR11133/hw3.git

The layout of the code and data is identical to what you received for coursework 2. This time, we’ve provided you with a complete encoder-decoder model with our own implementation of attention. We’ve also provided you with some pretrained models on the two language pairs, so you can experiment with them to see how they behave out of the box.

Our new implementation includes a script prepare_seq2seq.py with some utility functions that may be useful if your experiments require changing the way the input data is preprocessed.

You are not required to use our implementation: you may use your own implementation or a third-party implementation, as you prefer. However, if you do so, you must retrain the baseline models using your chosen codebase. We want you to compare alternative models or algorithms, not implementations, which can vary in many ways—often undocumented ways. If you were to compare the baseline model trained with our code and another model trained with different code, we would not know if differences in behaviour were due to differences in the model, or differences in the implementation.

Although you are free to use third-party software, we will not offer support for this. If you use third-party tools, it’s up to you to figure out how they work, though some developers may offer support via email. These days, new neural network frameworks and NMT systems based on these frameworks pop up all the time. A non-exhaustive list of those that seem to be popular includes:

You may find other toolkits that are more suited to your project or your programming language or framework of choice. However, as noted above, a comparison of two different implementations (e.g. NeMaTus vs. LamTram) would not be particularly interesting.

In addition to other MT software tools, you may find it useful to use other NLP tools. For example, the website from which we obtained the Inuktitut data includes other resources, including a morphological analyzer.

You are free to use other data, including monolingual data. But just about the only experiment we don’t want to see is one in which you simply add more parallel data to the baseline system and compare. We already know that will help. If you use more parallel data to train, you should include it in your baseline and compare it with a new method trained on the same data.

If you aren’t sure where to start, you may want to first read about the languages in the World Atlas of Language Structures. You may also find it helpful to look at the Language index of the MT archive, which organizes machine translation research papers by language. Even though there are no pointers to NMT for these languages, it may be possible to adapt techniques that have been used in other MT approaches.

Finally: although the design, implementation, analysis, and writing in your report must be solely the work of you (and optionally a partner; see below), you are encouraged to share knowledge and information on the piazza forum, up to an including things that you learn about languages, software, and data during the course of completing the assignment. This isn’t a competition, and you will learn more by asking and answering questions. But your report must be written in your own words and should correctly acknowledge any help you received, clearly identifying what is and is not your own work. Please respect the University’s guidance on plagiarism. We will take evidence of plagiarism very seriously.

Report guidance

What to work on. Most topics that draw on knowledge of language and modeling language with neural networks are fair game. For example, in class we talked about large-vocabulary models and their interaction with morphology, different approaches to attention, using monolingual data, and syntactic models. The associated readings for these lectures on the syllabus are a good starting point for learning about current approaches. However, neural machine translation is a very active research area and you may find other inspiration from Google scholar. As noted above, we prefer that you don’t focus experiments on the effect of adding more data (we know that will make the numbers go up, but what do we learn from it?) and comparison of implementations (this tells us who is a better engineer, not which ideas are most useful for these languages).

Whatever you do, your report should justify your choice of approach using evidence in the form of empirical observations about the baseline system, knowledge of language typology, and/ or conjectures about how these properties of the data and the language may interact with a basic encoder-decoder model with attention.

Metrics and improvements. You are required to clearly define objective measures that test whether you have made improvements. Think very carefully about this; the way in which you measure success should depend on your goals. For example, if you decide to implement character-based MT, you cannot compare it to the baseline using perplexity, since the set of predicted output events at each time step is different (you should of course measure perplexity on training as a check that your model is learning). Likewise, if you were to try to improve handling of subject-verb agreement, it does not make sense to evaluate the result using BLEU, a document-level metric that is sensitive to every n-gram in the output. Try something else. On the other hand, if you decide to implement minimum risk training, you should probably measure BLEU, TER and/ or METEOR, since the purpose of minimum risk training is to directly minimize an arbitrary error measure (or equivalently, to maximize a gain). Regardless of what you measure, you should think carefully about the limitations of measurement, and also include qualitative analysis (using examples) where appropriate.

Once you have decided what to measure, you should make a serious attempt to improve that measure. But it is perfectly ok if the method you implement does not produce improvements in the end. You are also not required to improve the system on specific measures (e.g. BLEU). What matters is that you carefully analyze the results, good or bad, and tell us what you learned about neural machine translation for one of these languages. It is far more important to have a carefully designed hypothesis and experimental design than it is to have positive results. Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.

Choice of language. You are only required to work with one of the two languages, and the choice of language is up to you. It is fine to work with both, but you should do so only if it makes sense in the context of your project; your marks will depend on the quality and depth of your report, not which language you use.

The assignment has been designed with the intention that you work on translation into English, and all of the baselines and choice of measures assume this. However, you are permitted to work on translation out of English if you prefer. This will reveal many problems that are just as interesting as the ones you would find by translating into English, but it will also be more difficult for a few reasons:

  • For all their warts, metrics like BLEU have some utility when English is the target, but BLEU is especially poor for Hungarian and Inuktitut. Can you see why? If you choose to translate out of English, you will need to think especially carefully about evaluation, and choose or even invent new measures.

  • It is very helpful to be able to read the output of your system.

  • In your report, you must be able to convey ideas to your readers using examples. You can certainly do this if the target language is not English; I recommend that you use interlinear glosses for all examples, irrespective of target language. However, finding good examples and analyzing them may be difficult if you can’t read the language.

These facts make translation out of English more challenging, but if you feel prepared for that challenge, forge ahead!

Sanity checking. It’s often difficult to know whether poor results of a machine learning system are due to model error, search error, or implementation error. To get good at it, you should get in the habit of asking and answering many small questions. Are there are lot of out-of-vocabulary words? Why? Is the training method working? (Check to see that training loss is decreasing). Can this model class learn some specific phenomena? (Generate some synthetic data that contains the pattern and see if the model can learn it; if it doesn’t learn from ideal data, then it definitely won’t learn on real data!) Will this implementation work on a big data set? (Try it on a small one first before scaling up; it will save you a lot of time finding the worst bugs.) Especially when you’re venturing into new methods, you may want to explain some of these sanity checks in your report. If they convince you that your implementation is correct, they might convince us, too.

Marking. Your report will be evaluated according to the University’s common marking scheme. Just as in the real world, there are no right or wrong answers to this coursework. It asks you look at a problem and make progress on it, to synthesize what you have learned and to clearly explain your reasoning at every step along the way, as is expected in a level 11 course. Concretely, your report should clearly convey:

  • [20 marks] A research question. As discussed above, this question should be motivated by an analysis of what you find in the baseline systems, and should be supported with examples from the data, an explanation of language typology, and/ or discussion of model architecture and its interaction with properties of the data or language.

  • [20 marks] A description of measures and methods. Clearly explain what you intend to measure and how it relates your hypotheis. Clearly explain how your approach works. I recommend using the first two levels in Marr’s level of analysis: a mathematical/ algorithmic description is preferable to code or a textual description of code. Keep in mind a complete description of your methods should include parameters of network architectures (e.g. embedding dimensions) and learning algorithms (e.g. initialization, learning rates, number of epochs or stopping criterion).

  • [40 marks] Results and analysis. What are your results? What do you conclude from them? What further things might you try based on what you’ve learned? How do your results relate to other work in the field that you learned about in class or read about independently?

  • [20 marks] Presentation and clarity. Your presentation should be clear and concise, providing enough information to enable work to be reproduced, informative discussion and conclusions. Imagine that you give your report to a classmate. Could they understand what you did? Would they be able to reimplement your approach? Would they believe your results? Would they find your interpretation of the results convincing?

You should expect to write a concise scientific report. If you aren’t sure what that looks like, look at some good training data (papers from the syllabus) or read some advice. Note that (unlike with a dissertation) you don’t need to extensively describe the general problem of MT or why you’re working on it: obviously, that has been decided for you.

Ground Rules

  • You must use the overleaf template for your report. You are permitted up to four (4) pages for the main text of your report and an unlimited number of pages for references and appendices, including plots, figures, diagrams, and long examples. Your appendix should not include any information (e.g. equations) that is essential to understand how you approached your problem or implemented your solution, but supporting figures, especially if they contain concrete evidence illustrating some point, are very welcome.

  • You are encouraged to work in pairs. Previous courseworks have assessed your individual work, so in this coursework we are able to relax this restriction. I encourage you to seek partners with complementary skills to your own. But choose your partner wisely: if you submit as a pair, you agree to receive the same mark for your work. I refuse to adjudicate Rashomon-style stories about who did or did not contribute. If you would like a partner but have no one in mind, you can search for a partner on piazza. You are only permitted to work with one other person; groups of three or more are not allowed.

    Once you have agreed to work with a partner, you must email me with “5636915” in the subject line. Please copy your partner on this email, and include both UUNs in the body of the email. I will then know that a submission received from either UUN should be marked on behalf of both you and your partner, and you should submit your joint report from only one of these UUNs. You may not change partners after you have emailed me. This means that your email consistutes an agreement to the parameters outlined above. It will also help us predict marking load, which may mean you get your results faster. I will ignore emails received after the deadline.

  • You must submit these files and only these files.
    1. report.pdf: A file containing your writeup.
    2. translations.txt: The output of your final system on the test set.
  • Your name(s) must not appear in any of the submitted files. If your name appears in either file you will (both) receive a mark of zero.

To submit your files on dice, run:

submit mt 3 report.pdf translations.txt


This assignment was developed by Ida Szubert and Sameer Bansal, with helpful comments from Nikolay Bogoychev, Anny Currey, Soňa Galovičová, Jonathan Mallinson, and Joana Ribeiro. Adam Lopez added all of the errors.


  1. NLP systems were also quickly assembled in response to the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

  2. The Cebuano paper title is a play on a film title.

  3. Here’s how you can tell what engine underlies a particular language pair on Google Translate: choose a language pair, and type a sentence into the input window. Now hover your mouse over the output. Part or all of the input will be highlighted, and if you click on it, you’ll be able to choose an alternate translation. If only a few words are highlighted at a time, you’re looking at the output of phrase-based translation. If the entire sentence is highlighted, you’re looking at neural MT. By now, you should know enough about how these systems work to guess why this feature is currently only available for phrase-based MT.

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