Article·AI & Engineering·May 9, 2023

Transfer Learning from Spanish to Portuguese: How Neighbors on the Map Also Share Vectors

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Duygu Altinok
By Duygu Altinok
PublishedMay 9, 2023
UpdatedJun 13, 2024

Transfer learning is one of the hottest topics of natural language processing-and, indeed, machine learning in general-in recent years. In this post, I want to share with you what transfer learning is, why it's so helpful when thinking about language-related tasks, and how we've used it to create a high-accuracy model for Portuguese based on the work that we'd already done for Spanish. In this blog post, we'll discuss some of our specific logic here, including the intuition of picking Spanish for helping Portuguese model training and the similarities between these languages on many levels. But to get started, let's talk about what transfer learning is and why it's so valued at Deepgram before diving into the specifics of Spanish and Portuguese.

What is Transfer Learning? A Very Brief History

In short, we can say that transfer learning is taking a model that has been trained on one task, and using it for a different one by changing its training data. Transfer learning started its journey with word vectors, which are static vectors for each word in the corpus. For our purposes, you can think of a vector as a way of describing the relationship between words in a large, abstract space. To get an idea of how this works, you can see an example of word vectors in Figure 1, below. If you look at the 1st box for the words man and woman, they're the same, but the word king is different because he's not an ordinary human; he's the king. Also manwoman, and king share the same third box, because they're all human. The fourth box of king is identical to man (baby blue), but woman has a different fourth box, pink. So king is more similar to man in this regard.

Figure 1. Word2vec, the ancestor of transfer learning, showing word similarities and differences (from

Next, contextual word vectors came with ELMo, or Embeddings from Language Models, which is "a type of deep contextualized word representation that models both (1) complex characteristics of word use (e.g., syntax and semantics), and (2) how these uses vary across linguistic contexts (i.e., to model polysemy)" (source.)). This provided a way to look at the relationship between words at a greater depth and with more . Finally transformers-a type of deep learning model that differentially weights input data-were developed to generate contextual word vectors as well as a sentence-level vector, which is even better for linguistic analysis.

At each step of this process, though, the goal remained the same-to look for good representations for our corpus words, which happen to be vectors. Both pretrained word vectors and transformers are trained on giant corpora, hence they know a lot about the target language's syntax and semantics. We feed pretrained vectors to our downstream models and the vectors bring what they know about the language, semantics of the words, and many surprising features to our models.

You can probably already see how this could be useful for language-related tasks. Speech recognition is the task of converting speech to text. Though speech recognition models are more sophisticated algorithms than text oriented statistical models, a neural network is still a neural network and weights are certainly used.

Hence, some weight re-using techniques are applicable to speech recognition, along with more sophisticated acoustic tricks. That is to say, once you have a model that works well for one language, it's relatively easy to give that model data for another language-especially one that's closely related-and see better results than if you started from scratch.

Why We Use Transfer Learning

At Deepgram, transfer learning is highly valued. For a specific language, when we want to train a new version of a specific model, we don't want to start from scratch. Instead, when we want to train a model for a brand new language, we want to transfer some knowledge from a similar language's model when possible. To illustrate the power of these processes, we'll look at a specific case of transfer learning-going from Spanish to Portuguese-to show how you can train a model for a new language from scratch by the help of a similar language's model.

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