Although multilingual language models exhibit impressive cross-lingual transfer capabilities on unseen languages, the performance on downstream tasks is impacted when there is a script disparity with the languages used in the multilingual model's pre-training data. Using transliteration offers a straightforward yet effective means to align the script of a resource-rich language with a target language, thereby enhancing cross-lingual transfer capabilities. However, for mixed languages, this approach is suboptimal, since only a subset of the language benefits from the cross-lingual transfer while the remainder is impeded. In this work, we focus on Maltese, a Semitic language, with substantial influences from Arabic, Italian, and English, and notably written in Latin script. We present a novel dataset annotated with word-level etymology. We use this dataset to train a classifier that enables us to make informed decisions regarding the appropriate processing of each token in the Maltese language. We contrast indiscriminate transliteration or translation to mixing processing pipelines that only transliterate words of Arabic origin, thereby resulting in text with a mixture of scripts. We fine-tune the processed data on four downstream tasks and show that conditional transliteration based on word etymology yields the best results, surpassing fine-tuning with raw Maltese or Maltese processed with non-selective pipelines.
Multilingual language models such as mBERT have seen impressive cross-lingual transfer to a variety of languages, but many languages remain excluded from these models. In this paper, we analyse the effect of pre-training with monolingual data for a low-resource language that is not included in mBERT -- Maltese -- with a range of pre-training set ups. We conduct evaluations with the newly pre-trained models on three morphosyntactic tasks -- dependency parsing, part-of-speech tagging, and named-entity recognition -- and one semantic classification task -- sentiment analysis. We also present a newly created corpus for Maltese, and determine the effect that the pre-training data size and domain have on the downstream performance. Our results show that using a mixture of pre-training domains is often superior to using Wikipedia text only. We also find that a fraction of this corpus is enough to make significant leaps in performance over Wikipedia-trained models. We pre-train and compare two models on the new corpus: a monolingual BERT model trained from scratch (BERTu), and a further pre-trained multilingual BERT (mBERTu). The models achieve state-of-the-art performance on these tasks, despite the new corpus being considerably smaller than typically used corpora for high-resourced languages. On average, BERTu outperforms or performs competitively with mBERTu, and the largest gains are observed for higher-level tasks.