NLP is currently dominated by language models like RoBERTa which are pretrained on billions of words. But what exact knowledge or skills do Transformer LMs learn from large-scale pretraining that they cannot learn from less data? To explore this question, we adopt five styles of evaluation: classifier probing, information-theoretic probing, unsupervised relative acceptability judgments, unsupervised language model knowledge probing, and fine-tuning on NLU tasks. We then draw learning curves that track the growth of these different measures of model ability with respect to pretraining data volume using the MiniBERTas, a group of RoBERTa models pretrained on 1M, 10M, 100M and 1B words. We find that these LMs require only about 10M to 100M words to learn to reliably encode most syntactic and semantic features we test. They need a much larger quantity of data in order to acquire enough commonsense knowledge and other skills required to master typical downstream NLU tasks. The results suggest that, while the ability to encode linguistic features is almost certainly necessary for language understanding, it is likely that other, unidentified, forms of knowledge are the major drivers of recent improvements in language understanding among large pretrained models.
One reason pretraining on self-supervised linguistic tasks is effective is that it teaches models features that are helpful for language understanding. However, we want pretrained models to learn not only to represent linguistic features, but also to use those features preferentially during fine-turning. With this goal in mind, we introduce a new English-language diagnostic set called MSGS (the Mixed Signals Generalization Set), which consists of 20 ambiguous binary classification tasks that we use to test whether a pretrained model prefers linguistic or surface generalizations during finetuning. We pretrain RoBERTa from scratch on quantities of data ranging from 1M to 1B words and compare their performance on MSGS to the publicly available RoBERTa_BASE. We find that models can learn to represent linguistic features with little pretraining data, but require far more data to learn to prefer linguistic generalizations over surface ones. Eventually, with about 30B words of pretraining data, RoBERTa_BASE does consistently demonstrate a linguistic bias with some regularity. We conclude that while self-supervised pretraining is an effective way to learn helpful inductive biases, there is likely room to improve the rate at which models learn which features matter.