Recent advances in the pre-training of language models leverage large-scale datasets to create multilingual models. However, low-resource languages are mostly left out in these datasets. This is primarily because many widely spoken languages are not well represented on the web and therefore excluded from the large-scale crawls used to create datasets. Furthermore, downstream users of these models are restricted to the selection of languages originally chosen for pre-training. This work investigates how to optimally leverage existing pre-trained models to create low-resource translation systems for 16 African languages. We focus on two questions: 1) How can pre-trained models be used for languages not included in the initial pre-training? and 2) How can the resulting translation models effectively transfer to new domains? To answer these questions, we create a new African news corpus covering 16 languages, of which eight languages are not part of any existing evaluation dataset. We demonstrate that the most effective strategy for transferring both to additional languages and to additional domains is to fine-tune large pre-trained models on small quantities of high-quality translation data.
Advances in speech and language technologies enable tools such as voice-search, text-to-speech, speech recognition and machine translation. These are however only available for high resource languages like English, French or Chinese. Without foundational digital resources for African languages, which are considered low-resource in the digital context, these advanced tools remain out of reach. This work details the AI4D - African Language Program, a 3-part project that 1) incentivised the crowd-sourcing, collection and curation of language datasets through an online quantitative and qualitative challenge, 2) supported research fellows for a period of 3-4 months to create datasets annotated for NLP tasks, and 3) hosted competitive Machine Learning challenges on the basis of these datasets. Key outcomes of the work so far include 1) the creation of 9+ open source, African language datasets annotated for a variety of ML tasks, and 2) the creation of baseline models for these datasets through hosting of competitive ML challenges.
We take a step towards addressing the under-representation of the African continent in NLP research by creating the first large publicly available high-quality dataset for named entity recognition (NER) in ten African languages, bringing together a variety of stakeholders. We detail characteristics of the languages to help researchers understand the challenges that these languages pose for NER. We analyze our datasets and conduct an extensive empirical evaluation of state-of-the-art methods across both supervised and transfer learning settings. We release the data, code, and models in order to inspire future research on African NLP.
Research in NLP lacks geographic diversity, and the question of how NLP can be scaled to low-resourced languages has not yet been adequately solved. "Low-resourced"-ness is a complex problem going beyond data availability and reflects systemic problems in society. In this paper, we focus on the task of Machine Translation (MT), that plays a crucial role for information accessibility and communication worldwide. Despite immense improvements in MT over the past decade, MT is centered around a few high-resourced languages. As MT researchers cannot solve the problem of low-resourcedness alone, we propose participatory research as a means to involve all necessary agents required in the MT development process. We demonstrate the feasibility and scalability of participatory research with a case study on MT for African languages. Its implementation leads to a collection of novel translation datasets, MT benchmarks for over 30 languages, with human evaluations for a third of them, and enables participants without formal training to make a unique scientific contribution. Benchmarks, models, data, code, and evaluation results are released under https://github.com/masakhane-io/masakhane-mt.
As language and speech technologies become more advanced, the lack of fundamental digital resources for African languages, such as data, spell checkers and Part of Speech taggers, means that the digital divide between these languages and others keeps growing. This work details the organisation of the AI4D - African Language Dataset Challenge, an effort to incentivize the creation, organization and discovery of African language datasets through a competitive challenge. We particularly encouraged the submission of annotated datasets which can be used for training task-specific supervised machine learning models.
Africa has over 2000 languages. Despite this, African languages account for a small portion of available resources and publications in Natural Language Processing (NLP). This is due to multiple factors, including: a lack of focus from government and funding, discoverability, a lack of community, sheer language complexity, difficulty in reproducing papers and no benchmarks to compare techniques. To begin to address the identified problems, MASAKHANE, an open-source, continent-wide, distributed, online research effort for machine translation for African languages, was founded. In this paper, we discuss our methodology for building the community and spurring research from the African continent, as well as outline the success of the community in terms of addressing the identified problems affecting African NLP.