Monthy online ILFC Seminar

[Version française ici]

GdR LIFT is organising a monthly online seminar on the interactions between formal and computational linguistics.

The seminar is intended to make members of diverse scientific communities around the world meet and share their different perspectives.

It is free to attend the seminar and it is held on Zoom.
To attend the seminar and get updates, please register to be on our mailing list: [here]

Future sessions:

(The times are, depending on the time of the year, given in the Central European Winter (UTC+1) or Summer (UTC+2) Time zone.)

  • 2022/05/17 17:00-18:00 UTC+2: Roger Levy (Massachusetts Institute of Technology; 11:00-12:00 UTC-4)
    Title: The acquisition and processing of grammatical structure: insights from deep learning
    Abstract: Psycholinguistics and computational linguistics are the two fields most dedicated to accounting for the computational operations required to understand natural language. Today, both fields find themselves responsible for understanding the behaviors and inductive biases of “black-box” systems: the human mind and artificial neural-network language models (NLMs), respectively. Contemporary NLMs can be trained on a human lifetime’s worth of text or more, and generate text of apparently remarkable grammaticality and fluency. Here, we use NLMs to address questions of learnability and processing of natural language syntax. By testing NLMs trained on naturalistic corpora as if they were subjects in a psycholinguistics experiment, we show that they exhibit a range of subtle behaviors, including embedding-depth tracking and garden-pathing over long stretches of text, suggesting representations homologous to incremental syntactic state in human language processing. Strikingly, these NLMs also learn many generalizations about the long-distance filler-gap dependencies that are a hallmark of natural language syntax, perhaps most surprisingly many “island” constraints. I conclude with comments on the long-standing idea of whether the departures of NLMs from the predictions of the “competence” grammars developed in generative linguistics might provide a “performance” account of human language processing: by and large, they don’t.
  • 2022/06/14 17:00-18:00 UTC+2: Gene Louis Kim (University of South Florida; 11:00-12:00 UTC-4)
    Title: [TBA]
    Abstract: [TBA]

Past sessions:

  • 2022/04/12 15:00-16:00 UTC+2: Noortje Venhuizen (Saarland University)
    Title: Distributional Formal Semantics
    Abstract: Formal Semantics and Distributional Semantics offer complementary strengths in capturing the meaning of natural language. As such, a considerable amount of research has sought to unify them, either by augmenting formal semantic systems with a distributional component, or by defining a formal system on top of distributed representations. Arriving at such a unified formalism has, however, proven extremely challenging. One reason for this is that formal and distributional semantics operate on a fundamentally different ‘representational currency’: formal semantics defines meaning in terms of models of the world, whereas distributional semantics defines meaning in terms of linguistic context. An alternative approach from cognitive science, however, proposes a vector space model that defines meaning in a distributed manner relative to the state of the world. This talk presents a re-conceptualisation of this approach based on well-known principles from formal semantics, thereby demonstrating its full logical capacity. The resulting Distributional Formal Semantics is shown to offer the best of both worlds: contextualised distributed representations that are also inherently compositional and probabilistic. The application of the representations is illustrated using a neural network model that captures various semantic phenomena, including probabilistic inference and entailment, negation, quantification, reference resolution and presupposition.
  • 2022/03/15 17:00-18:00 UTC+1: Mark Steedman (University of Edinburgh)
    Title: Projecting Dependency: CCG and Minimalism
    Abstract: Since the publication of “Bare Phrase Structure” it has been clear that Chomskyan Minimalism can be thought of as a form of Categorial Grammar, distinguished by the addition of movement rules to handle “displacement” or non-local dependency in surface forms. More specifically, the Minimalist Principle of Inclusiveness can be interpreted as requiring that all language-specific details of combinatory potential, such as category, subcategorization, agreement, and the like, must be specified at the level of the lexicon, and must be either “checked” or “projected” unchanged by language-independent universal rules onto the constituents of the syntactic derivation, which can add no information such as “indices, traces, syntactic categories or bar-levels and so on” that has not already been specified in the lexicon.
    The place of rules of movement in such a system is somewhat unclear. While sometimes referred to as an “internal” form of MERGE, defined in terms of “copies” that are sometimes thought of as identical, it still seems to involve “action at a distance” over a structure. Yet Inclusiveness seems to require that copies are already specified as such in the lexicon.
    Combinatory Categorial Grammar (CCG) insists under a Principle of Adjacency that all rules of syntactic combination are local, applying to contiguous syntactically-typed constituents, where the type-system in question crucially includes second-order functions, whose arguments are themselves functions. The consequence is that iterated contiguous combinatory reductions can in syntactic and semantic lock-step project the lexical local binding by a verb of a complement such as an object NP from the lexicon onto an unbounded dependency, which can be satisfied by reduction with a relative pronoun or right-node raising, as well as by an in situ NP. A number of surface-discontinuous constructions, including raising, “there”-insertion, scrambling, non-constituent coordination, and “wh”-extraction can thereby be handled without any involvement of non-locality in syntactic rules, such as movement or deletion, in a theory that is “pure derivational”. One you have Inclusiveness, Contiguity is all you need.
  • 2022/02/15 17:00-18:00 UTC+1: Najoung Kim (New York University; 11:00-12:00 UTC-5)
    Title: Compositional Linguistic Generalization in Artificial Neural Networks
    Abstract: Compositionality is considered a central property of human language. One key benefit of compositionality is the generalization it enables—the production and comprehension of novel expressions analyzed as new compositions of familiar parts. I construct a test for compositional generalization for artificial neural networks based on human generalization patterns discussed in existing linguistic and developmental studies, and test several instantiations of Transformer (Vaswani et al. 2017) and Long Short-Term Memory (Hochreiter & Schmidhuber 1997) models. The models evaluated exhibit only limited degrees of compositional generalization, implying that their learning biases for induction to fill gaps in the training data differ from those of human learners. An error analysis reveals that all models tested lack bias towards faithfulness (à la Prince & Smolensky 1993/2002). Adding a glossing task (word-by-word translation), a task that requires maximally faithful input-output mappings, as an auxiliary training objective to the Transformer model substantially improves generalization, showing that the auxiliary training successfully modified the model’s inductive bias. However, the improvement is limited to generalization to novel compositions of known lexical items and known structures; all models still struggled with generalization to novel structures, regardless of auxiliary training. The challenge of structural generalization leaves open exciting avenues for future research for both human and machine learners.
  • 2022/01/18 17:00-18:00 UTC+1: Johan Bos (University of Groningen)
    Title: Variable-free Meaning Representations
    Abstract: Most formal meaning representations use variables to represent entities and relations between them. But variables can be bothersome for people annotating texts with meanings, and for algorithms that work with meanings representations, in particular the recent machine learning methods based on neural network technology.
    Hence the question that I am interested in is: can we replace the currently popular meaning representations with representations that do not use variables, without giving up any expressive power? My starting point are the representations of Discourse Representation Theory. I will show that these can be replaced by a simple language based on indices instead of variables, assuming a neo-Davidsonian event semantics.
    The resulting formalism has several interesting consequences. Apart from being beneficial to human annotators and machine learning algorithms, it also offers straightforward visualisation possibilities and potential for modelling information packaging.
  • 2021/12/14 17:00-18:00 UTC+1: Lisa Bylinina (Bookarang, Netherlands)
    Title: Polarity in multilingual language models
    Abstract: The space of natural languages is constrained by various interactions between linguistic phenomena. In this talk, I will focus on one particular type of such interaction, in which logical properties of a context constrain the distribution of negative polarity items (NPIs), like English ‘any’. Correlational — and possibly, causal — interaction between logical monotonicity and NPI distribution has been observed for some NPIs in some languages for some contexts, with the help of theoretical, psycholinguistic and computational tools. How general is this relation across languages? How inferable is it from just textual data? What kind of generalization — if any — about NPI distribution would a massively multilingual speaker form, and what kind of causal structure would guide such speaker’s intuition? Humans speaking 100+ languages natively are hard to find — but we do have multilingual language models. I will report experiments in which we study NPIs in four languages (English, French, Russian and Turkish) in two pre-trained models — multilingual BERT and XLM-RoBERTa. We evaluate the models’ recognition of polarity-sensitivity and its cross-lingual generality. Further, using the artificial language learning paradigm, we look for the connection between semantic profiles of tokens and their ability to license NPIs. We find partial evidence for such connection.
    Joint work with Alexey Tikhonov (Yandex).
  • 2021/11/16 17:00-18:00 UTC+1: Alex Lascarides (University of Edinburgh; 16:00-17:00 UTC+0)
    Title: Situated Communication
    Abstract: This talk focuses on how to represent and reason about the content of conversation when it takes place in an embodied, dynamic environment. I will argue that speakers can, and do, appropriate non-linguistic events into their communicative intents, even when those events weren’t produced with the intention of being a part of a discourse. Indeed, non-linguistic events can contribute an (instance of) a proposition to the content of the speaker’s message, even when her verbal signal contains no demonstratives or anaphora of any kind.
    I will argue that representing and reasoning about discourse coherence is essential to capturing these features of situated conversation. I will make two claims: first, non-linguistic events affect rhetorical structure in non-trivial ways; and secondly, rhetorical structure guides the conceptualisation of non-linguistic events. I will support the first claim via empirical observations from the STAC corpus (—a corpus of dialogues that take place between players during the board game Settlers of Catan. I will support the second claim via experiments in Interactive Task Learning: a software agent jointly learns how to conceptualise the domain, ground previously unknown words in the embodied environment, and solve its planning problem, by using the evidence of an expert’s corrective (verbal) feedback on its physical actions.
  • 2021/10/12 17:00-18:00 UTC+2: Christopher Potts (Stanford University; 8:00-9:00 UTC-7)
    Title: Causal Abstractions of Neural Natural Language Inference Models
    Abstract: Neural networks have a reputation for being « black boxes » — complex, opaque systems that can be studied using only purely behavioral evaluations. However, much recent work on structural analysis methods (e.g., probing and feature attribution) is allowing us to peer inside these models and deeply understand their internal dynamics. In this talk, I’ll describe a new structural analysis method we’ve developed that is grounded in a formal theory of causal abstraction. In this method, neural representations are aligned with variables in interpretable causal models, and then *interchange interventions* are used to experimentally verify that the neural representations have the causal properties of their aligned variables. I’ll use these methods to explore problems in Natural Language Inference, focusing in particular on compositional interactions between lexical entailment and negation. Recent Transformer-based models can solve hard generalization tasks involving these phenomena, and our causal analysis method helps explain why: the models have learned modular representations that closely approximate the high-level compositional theory. Finally, I will show how to bring interchange interventions into the training process, which allows us to push our models to acquire desired modular internal structures like this.
    Joint work with Atticus Geiger, Hanson Lu, Noah Goodman, and Thomas Icard.
  • 2021/06/01 10:30-18:30 UTC+2: one-day event with 6 speakers, namely Juan Luis Gastaldi (ETH Zürich), Koji Mineshima (Keio University), Maud Pironneau (Druide informatique), Marie-Catherine de Marneffe (Ohio State University), Jacob Andreas (MIT) and Olga Zamaraeva (University of Washington).

Contact : Timothée BERNARD ( and Grégoire WINTERSTEIN (