Yair Lakretz


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Language acquisition: do children and language models follow similar learning stages?
Linnea Evanson | Yair Lakretz | Jean Rémi King
Findings of the Association for Computational Linguistics: ACL 2023

During language acquisition, children follow a typical sequence of learning stages, whereby they first learn to categorize phonemes before they develop their lexicon and eventually master increasingly complex syntactic structures. However, the computational principles that lead to this learning trajectory remain largely unknown. To investigate this, we here compare the learning trajectories of deep language models to those of human children. Specifically, we test whether, during its training, GPT-2 exhibits stages of language acquisition comparable to those observed in children aged between 18 months and 6 years. For this, we train 48 GPT-2 models from scratch and evaluate their syntactic and semantic abilities at each training step, using 96 probes curated from the BLiMP, Zorro and BIG-Bench benchmarks. We then compare these evaluations with the behavior of 54 children during language production. Our analyses reveal three main findings. First, similarly to children, the language models tend to learn linguistic skills in a systematic order. Second, this learning scheme is parallel: the language tasks that are learned last improve from the very first training steps. Third, some – but not all – learning stages are shared between children and these language models. Overall, these results shed new light on the principles of language acquisition, and highlight important divergences in how humans and modern algorithms learn to process natural language.


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Can Transformers Process Recursive Nested Constructions, Like Humans?
Yair Lakretz | Théo Desbordes | Dieuwke Hupkes | Stanislas Dehaene
Proceedings of the 29th International Conference on Computational Linguistics

Recursive processing is considered a hallmark of human linguistic abilities. A recent study evaluated recursive processing in recurrent neural language models (RNN-LMs) and showed that such models perform below chance level on embedded dependencies within nested constructions – a prototypical example of recursion in natural language. Here, we study if state-of-the-art Transformer LMs do any better. We test eight different Transformer LMs on two different types of nested constructions, which differ in whether the embedded (inner) dependency is short or long range. We find that Transformers achieve near-perfect performance on short-range embedded dependencies, significantly better than previous results reported for RNN-LMs and humans. However, on long-range embedded dependencies, Transformers’ performance sharply drops below chance level. Remarkably, the addition of only three words to the embedded dependency caused Transformers to fall from near-perfect to below-chance performance. Taken together, our results reveal how brittle syntactic processing is in Transformers, compared to humans.


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The emergence of number and syntax units in LSTM language models
Yair Lakretz | German Kruszewski | Theo Desbordes | Dieuwke Hupkes | Stanislas Dehaene | Marco Baroni
Proceedings of the 2019 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies, Volume 1 (Long and Short Papers)

Recent work has shown that LSTMs trained on a generic language modeling objective capture syntax-sensitive generalizations such as long-distance number agreement. We have however no mechanistic understanding of how they accomplish this remarkable feat. Some have conjectured it depends on heuristics that do not truly take hierarchical structure into account. We present here a detailed study of the inner mechanics of number tracking in LSTMs at the single neuron level. We discover that long-distance number information is largely managed by two “number units”. Importantly, the behaviour of these units is partially controlled by other units independently shown to track syntactic structure. We conclude that LSTMs are, to some extent, implementing genuinely syntactic processing mechanisms, paving the way to a more general understanding of grammatical encoding in LSTMs.