Teaching Languages To Artificial Intelligence

Teaching artificial intelligence a new language is not that new – it’s been happening for years.  Let’s look at a history lesson from when AI was just getting started:

“A few years ago, artificial intelligence researchers discovered that they could make computer programs that “learned’ without ever being given symbols and rules to manipulate the symbols. This approach, which was a radical departure from traditional artificial intelligence research, has sharply divided the scientific community. It is the basis of the language acquisition model proposed by Rumelhart and McClelland.

The ruleless systems are called connectionist networks because they consist of densely connected network of processors. The processors transmit signals that vary in intensity according to the strengths of the signals that each unit of the network receives. Connectionist models work by learning routines to adjust the strengths of the connections between the processors. No rules are fed into the system but, at the end, when the network adjusts itself, something very much like rules are learned.

Rumelhart and McClelland wanted to explain with their connectionist model what really goes on when children learn to speak. Are there rules that children gradually discover or do they learn by a process that more closely resembles forming analogies? And if language acquisition can be understood, can it also be modeled by a computer? In particular, the two researchers wanted to explain the strange process that children go through when they learn to form the past tense of verbs.

The past tense in English is almost incredibly simple. To form the past tense of the verb, you almost always add “ed’ to the end of it, unless it is an irregular verb, such as “go’ or “bring.’ Among the 150 or so irregular verbs, “go’ is in a class by itself. The rest of the verbs fall into about 20 groups, such as the group containing the verbs keep, sleep, and weep. All the verbs in a group form past tenses in the same way.

Because the past tense is so simple, saysPrince, “linguists have not studied it much. When you go to graduate school, it is not the sort of thing you linger over.’

But psycholinguists have discovered that when young children learn to speak, they start out by forming irregular past tenses correctly and then they get worse–they over regularize. Finally they learn the correct forms again. For example, children start out by saying “brought’ and “went.’ Then they switch to “bringed’ and “good’ before they relearn the correct irregular forms.

The standard explanation of over regularizationis that children when they first learn to speak, memorize words one by one without regard for any relations between them. Later, they discover the past tense rule and run amok with it, over regularizing, because they do not grasp the structure of the language. Finally, they learn the exceptions to the past tense rule and their speech becomes correct again. The idea is that children eventually learn the past tense rule for regular verbs and learn the irregular past tenses by analogy.

Rumelhart and McClelland started out by assuming that this standard explanation is correct. Only after they developed their connectionist model of language acquisition did they question it. Rumelhart, in fact, used to illustrate the observation that children learn rules for forming the past tense by playing for his students a tape of his own little boy, who was 5 years old when the tape was made.

In the recording, Rumelhart asked his sonwhat grade comes before the seventh grade. “Sixth,’ the boy replied. Then Rumelhart asked what grade is before the sixth grade. “Fifth,’ the boy said. What is before fifth? “Fourth.’ What is before fourth? “Thirdth.’ What is before third? “Secondth.’ What is before that? “Firsth.’

Then Rumelhart asked the question in the opposite order. What grade is after kindergarten? His son replied “First.’ What is after first? Second.’ Rumelhart continued up to grade seven and, this time, the boy got all the words right.

“I would play this tape for students and would tell them that it was obvious that the kid had learned a general rule,’ Rumelhart says. He did not worry about the fact that his child got the words wrong when he went in descending order and got them right when he went in ascending order.

Rumelhart told his students that the past tense is learned in the same way–with rules. Then Rumelhart and McClelland noticed that connectionist networks tend to over regularize in the same way that children do whey they learn to speak. Rumelhart explains that “when there are some things with regular patterns and others with unusual patterns, the networks learn the regular patterns first and apply them where the more unusual ones should be applied.’ Only later does the network learn the unusual patterns.”

Teaching an AI Spanish if it only knows English is one thing however, that has not happened yet.  However, can teaching an AI a new language help our own understanding of how languages can be learned more easily by humans?  Learning Spanish is still rather hard and time consuming for people, however perhaps it could be made easier if AI can teach us some tricks.

Linguistic Awareness

If you’re looking to update your global awareness, then consider learning a new language.  Studies have shown that learning a new language can improve mental power and even offset deterioration of old age.  Also, learning a new language can open up your viewpoints to new things.

Different languages have different ways of expressing certain things.  This is called linguistic relativity, and can have a sometimes profound effect on the way we see the world around us.  For example, certain tribal languages do not have “relativistic” words for things such as behind, in front of, to the left, etc.  All of their location words are based on cardinal directions – and not just the directions relative to the person but relative to where the person is.  So no matter what way the person is facing, they will describe the location of objects as “to the northwest of your foot” or “to the south of the tree”.  The funny thing is, when recounting the same story but in a different place facing a different direction, the hand signals and directions change according to the direction that the person is sitting.

Other differences in languages are color, gender expression, and more.  Studies have shown that people who speak a gendered language often view inanimate objects as having either more feminine or masculine characteristics (based on whatever gender the object is assigned in their native language).


So if you’re looking to learn a new language, get ready to embrace these unusual and fun differences.  Spanish is a great language for English speakers to start out with thanks to the proliferation of Spanish in the USA as well as the similarities between the two languages.  There are a few great language learning programs out there, including the Rocket Languages series (check out a good Rocket Spanish review here).

However, the best way to learn a new language properly (and get the culture with it) is to actually go to where the language is spoken natively and immerse yourself.  If you can’t make that happen (and honestly, who can make that happen anyway?) then a classroom setting is best.  If you happen to still be in college, get involved in a language club.  There are so many opportunities to speak with native speakers while you’re in college.

Lastly, an audio program like the one mentioned above is a great tool in the interim, or if you’re just looking for a quick and dirty way to learn some vocabulary and phrases for a vacation.

Computer Education For Everyone

It’s interesting to look back and see the past attitudes people held towards computers, especially in the educational space.  People actually actively feared that computers would replace the teacher.  While some of that holds true today (some people can earn college degrees online), there are still teachers.  We just use computers as educational aides.  I was shocked to hear that my high school had given all the students an iPad!  I couldn’t believe it.

In the early 1980’s, the advent of microcomputers made increased computational power available at a cost the schools could afford. More than a million personal computers were estimated to be in use in the schools by 1985. Applications had not stood still. The boundaries of computer-aided instruction have expanded beyond drill and practice. Software is now available for a variety of games and simulations designed to advance teaching, particularly in math and science.

Although an estimated 10,000 educational software items are available, their quality is acknowledged to vary wildly. Most school districts lack personnel with the expertise to discriminate among the products on the market. In the case of the better software programs, evaluations may indicate that such software enhances instruction, but by and large cannot show convincingly that the improvement is more than marginal.

When AI-influenced systems become available, the attitudes of teachers and teacher organizations will be germane. Resistance could arise from reasons ranging from computer fear to predictions that the computer will replace the teacher. And despite the likelihood that hardware costs will continue their incredible shrinking pattern, the investment required will daunt many school districts.

AI applications in business and the military have outpaced those in education in part because such organizations have the resources to invest in systems that are often designed specifically for them and that they see as cost effective. Many of the new AI systems being used in business for a variety of troubleshooting and decision-making tasks are based on AI research on building expert systems, a way of organizing the knowledge of experts to enable nonexperts to solve particular technical problems. A prototypical application was in medical diagnosis.

Excerpt:  Walsh, John. “Computers in class at the awkward age.” Science 233 (1986): 713+

It will be interesting to see how computers will alter education in the future.  Our partner website at No More Sad Computer has a few great articles on this subject.  We definitely think that the best way to influence the decisions made by our educators is to look back and see the advantages that increasing technology has brought us in the educational sphere, and that we should not fear nor fight the future.

The World Is Your Oyster

What is the point of global awareness?  Is it to simply make us feel better about ourselves?  Or is it to truly open eyes to what’s really going on outside our doorstep?  The global blindness of Americans is quite stunning.  Many of my friends have no idea what is going on around the world, and they could care less.  They’d much rather be home watching “Honey Boo Boo” or some ridiculous nonsense on television.

I was having a conversation with my friend last night about the decline of our education system, and how many Americans are growing soft.  We are quickly being surpassed by other countries that have the hunger to better themselves and get ahead.  Americans have a false idea of entitlement, and that they are ‘already’ ahead.

There are so many things that we need to be aware of around the world, and it can become quite overwhelming and depressing – so I do understand the tendency for people to ‘ignore’ it and retreat into their own world where all they have to worry about is downloading the latest apps for their iPhone.  It can be rather stressful to learn about the crazy stuff that’s occurring around the world, and the stress and pain that many people are going through.

For example: the drone war in Pakistan.  What is going on here?  It’s a remote controlled killing spree and it’s killing many innocent people.  Whether or not this is a good or bad decision on the United State’s part is a topic for another discussion, but the point is that it’s actually going on and we need to be aware of the actions as well as the causation.  We can then come to conclusions for ourselves as more globally aware citizens who can more fully direct the country in the direction that it needs to go.

What else should we be aware of?  How about the pollution in rising nations such as China and India.  These countries are absolutely booming with industrial production, not to mention the production of new humans because of their booming populations.  However, how are pollution controls in these countries?  China may advertise that it is “green” in certain areas, but it’s such a large country and their media is so controlled that it’s difficult to get a clear picture of what’s really going on out there.   So the point is – we need to be aware of the risks of all this pollution and perhaps choose to buy goods that are made by either more green industries or countries.