Language models are typically evaluated on their success at predicting the distribution of specific words in specific contexts. Yet linguistic knowledge also encodes relationships between contexts, allowing inferences between word distributions. We investigate the degree to which pre-trained Transformer-based large language models (LLMs) represent such relationships, focusing on the domain of argument structure. We find that LLMs perform well in generalizing the distribution of a novel noun argument between related contexts that were seen during pre-training (e.g., the active object and passive subject of the verb spray), succeeding by making use of the semantically-organized structure of the embedding space for word embeddings. However, LLMs fail at generalizations between related contexts that have not been observed during pre-training, but which instantiate more abstract, but well-attested structural generalizations (e.g., between the active object and passive subject of an arbitrary verb). Instead, in this case, LLMs show a bias to generalize based on linear order. This finding points to a limitation with current models and points to a reason for which their training is data-intensive.s reported here are available at https://github.com/clay-lab/structural-alternations.
A sharp tension exists about the nature of human language between two opposite parties: those who believe that statistical surface distributions, in particular using measures like surprisal, provide a better understanding of language processing, vs. those who believe that discrete hierarchical structures implementing linguistic information such as syntactic ones are a better tool. In this paper, we show that this dichotomy is a false one. Relying on the fact that statistical measures can be defined on the basis of either structural or non-structural models, we provide empirical evidence that only models of surprisal that reflect syntactic structure are able to account for language regularities.
When acquiring syntax, children consistently choose hierarchical rules over competing non-hierarchical possibilities. Is this preference due to a learning bias for hierarchical structure, or due to more general biases that interact with hierarchical cues in children's linguistic input? We explore these possibilities by training LSTMs and Transformers - two types of neural networks without a hierarchical bias - on data similar in quantity and content to children's linguistic input: text from the CHILDES corpus. We then evaluate what these models have learned about English yes/no questions, a phenomenon for which hierarchical structure is crucial. We find that, though they perform well at capturing the surface statistics of child-directed speech (as measured by perplexity), both model types generalize in a way more consistent with an incorrect linear rule than the correct hierarchical rule. These results suggest that human-like generalization from text alone requires stronger biases than the general sequence-processing biases of standard neural network architectures.
Language models demonstrate both quantitative improvement and new qualitative capabilities with increasing scale. Despite their potentially transformative impact, these new capabilities are as yet poorly characterized. In order to inform future research, prepare for disruptive new model capabilities, and ameliorate socially harmful effects, it is vital that we understand the present and near-future capabilities and limitations of language models. To address this challenge, we introduce the Beyond the Imitation Game benchmark (BIG-bench). BIG-bench currently consists of 204 tasks, contributed by 442 authors across 132 institutions. Task topics are diverse, drawing problems from linguistics, childhood development, math, common-sense reasoning, biology, physics, social bias, software development, and beyond. BIG-bench focuses on tasks that are believed to be beyond the capabilities of current language models. We evaluate the behavior of OpenAI's GPT models, Google-internal dense transformer architectures, and Switch-style sparse transformers on BIG-bench, across model sizes spanning millions to hundreds of billions of parameters. In addition, a team of human expert raters performed all tasks in order to provide a strong baseline. Findings include: model performance and calibration both improve with scale, but are poor in absolute terms (and when compared with rater performance); performance is remarkably similar across model classes, though with benefits from sparsity; tasks that improve gradually and predictably commonly involve a large knowledge or memorization component, whereas tasks that exhibit "breakthrough" behavior at a critical scale often involve multiple steps or components, or brittle metrics; social bias typically increases with scale in settings with ambiguous context, but this can be improved with prompting.
This paper analyzes three formal models of Transformer encoders that differ in the form of their self-attention mechanism: unique hard attention (UHAT); generalized unique hard attention (GUHAT), which generalizes UHAT; and averaging hard attention (AHAT). We show that UHAT and GUHAT Transformers, viewed as string acceptors, can only recognize formal languages in the complexity class AC$^0$, the class of languages recognizable by families of Boolean circuits of constant depth and polynomial size. This upper bound subsumes Hahn's (2020) results that GUHAT cannot recognize the DYCK languages or the PARITY language, since those languages are outside AC$^0$ (Furst et al., 1984). In contrast, the non-AC$^0$ languages MAJORITY and DYCK-1 are recognizable by AHAT networks, implying that AHAT can recognize languages that UHAT and GUHAT cannot.
Relations between words are governed by hierarchical structure rather than linear ordering. Sequence-to-sequence (seq2seq) models, despite their success in downstream NLP applications, often fail to generalize in a hierarchy-sensitive manner when performing syntactic transformations - for example, transforming declarative sentences into questions. However, syntactic evaluations of seq2seq models have only observed models that were not pre-trained on natural language data before being trained to perform syntactic transformations, in spite of the fact that pre-training has been found to induce hierarchical linguistic generalizations in language models; in other words, the syntactic capabilities of seq2seq models may have been greatly understated. We address this gap using the pre-trained seq2seq models T5 and BART, as well as their multilingual variants mT5 and mBART. We evaluate whether they generalize hierarchically on two transformations in two languages: question formation and passivization in English and German. We find that pre-trained seq2seq models generalize hierarchically when performing syntactic transformations, whereas models trained from scratch on syntactic transformations do not. This result presents evidence for the learnability of hierarchical syntactic information from non-annotated natural language text while also demonstrating that seq2seq models are capable of syntactic generalization, though only after exposure to much more language data than human learners receive.
How is knowledge of position-role mappings in natural language learned? We explore this question in a computational setting, testing whether a variety of well-performing pertained language models (BERT, RoBERTa, and DistilBERT) exhibit knowledge of these mappings, and whether this knowledge persists across alternations in syntactic, structural, and lexical alternations. In Experiment 1, we show that these neural models do indeed recognize distinctions between theme and recipient roles in ditransitive constructions, and that these distinct patterns are shared across construction type. We strengthen this finding in Experiment 2 by showing that fine-tuning these language models on novel theme- and recipient-like tokens in one paradigm allows the models to make correct predictions about their placement in other paradigms, suggesting that the knowledge of these mappings is shared rather than independently learned. We do, however, observe some limitations of this generalization when tasks involve constructions with novel ditransitive verbs, hinting at a degree of lexical specificity which underlies model performance.
Natural language exhibits patterns of hierarchically governed dependencies, in which relations between words are sensitive to syntactic structure rather than linear ordering. While re-current network models often fail to generalize in a hierarchically sensitive way (McCoy et al.,2020) when trained on ambiguous data, the improvement in performance of newer Trans-former language models (Vaswani et al., 2017)on a range of syntactic benchmarks trained on large data sets (Goldberg, 2019; Warstadtet al., 2019) opens the question of whether these models might exhibit hierarchical generalization in the face of impoverished data.In this paper we examine patterns of structural generalization for Transformer sequence-to-sequence models and find that not only do Transformers fail to generalize hierarchically across a wide variety of grammatical mapping tasks, but they exhibit an even stronger preference for linear generalization than comparable recurrent networks
Reflexive anaphora present a challenge for semantic interpretation: their meaning varies depending on context in a way that appears to require abstract variables. Past work has raised doubts about the ability of recurrent networks to meet this challenge. In this paper, we explore this question in the context of a fragment of English that incorporates the relevant sort of contextual variability. We consider sequence-to-sequence architectures with recurrent units and show that such networks are capable of learning semantic interpretations for reflexive anaphora which generalize to novel antecedents. We explore the effect of attention mechanisms and different recurrent unit types on the type of training data that is needed for success as measured in two ways: how much lexical support is needed to induce an abstract reflexive meaning (i.e., how many distinct reflexive antecedents must occur during training) and what contexts must a noun phrase occur in to support generalization of reflexive interpretation to this noun phrase?