From ontology verbalisation to language learning exercises

I’m aware that to most people ‘playing with’ (investigating) ontologies and isiZulu does not sound particularly useful on the face of it. Yet, there’s the some long-term future music, like eventually being able to generate patient discharge notes in one’s own language, which will do its bit to ameliorate the language barrier in healthcare in South Africa so that patients at least will adhere to the treatment instructions a little better, and therewith receive better quality healthcare. But benefits in the short-term might serve something as well. To that end, I proposed an honours project last year, which has been completed in the meantime, and one of the two interesting outcomes has made it into a publication already [1]. As you may have guessed from the title, it’s about automation for language learning exercises. The results will be presented at the 6th Workshop on Controlled Natural Language, in Maynooth, Ireland in about 2 weeks time (27-28 August). In the remainder of this post, I highlight the main contributions described in the paper.

First, regarding the post’s title, one might wonder what ontology verbalisation has to do with language learning. Nothing, really, except that we could reuse the algorithms from the controlled natural language (CNL) for ontology verbalisation to generate (computer-assisted) language learning exercises whose answers can be computed and marked automatically. That is, the original design of the CNL for things like pluralising nouns, verb conjugation, and negation that is used for verbalising ontologies in isiZulu in theory [2] and in practice [3], was such that the sentence generator is a detachable module that could be plugged in elsewhere for another task that needs such operations.

Practically, the student who designed and developed the back-end, Nikhil Gilbert, preferred Java over Python, so he converted most parts into Java, and added a bit more, notably the ‘singulariser’, a sentence scrabble, and a sentence generator. Regarding the sentence generator, this is used as part of the exercises & answers generator. For instance, we know that humans and the roles they play (father, aunt, doctor, etc.) are mostly in isiZulu’s noun classes 1, 2, 1a, 2a, or 3a, that those classes do not (or rarely?) have non-human nouns and generally it holds for all humans and their roles that they can ‘eat’, ‘talk’ etc. This makes it relatively easy create a noun chain and a verb chain list to mix and match nouns with verbs accordingly (hurrah! for the semantics-based noun class system). Then, with the 231 nouns and 59 verbs in the newly constructed mini-corpus, the noun chain and the verb chain, 39501 unique question sentences could be generated, using the following overall architecture of the system:

Architecture of the CNL-driven CALL system. The arrows indicate which upper layer components make use of the lower layer components. (Source: [1])

From a CNL perspective as well as the language learning perspective, the actual templates for the exercises may be of interest. For instance, when a learner is learning about pluralising nouns and their associated verb, the system uses the following two templates for the questions and answers:

Q: <prefixSG+stem> <SGSC+VerbRoot+FV>
A: <prefixPL+stem> <PLSC+VerbRoot+FV>
Q: <prefixSG+stem> <SGSC+VerbRoot+FV> <prefixSG+stem>
A: <prefixPL+stem> <PLSC+VerbRoot+FV> <prefixPL+stem>

The answers can be generated automatically with the algorithms that generate the plural noun (from ‘prefixSG’ to ‘prefixPL’) and add the plural subject concord (from ‘SGSC’ to ‘PLSC’, in agreement with ‘prefixPL’), which were developed as part of the GeNI project on ontology verbalization. This can then be checked against what the learner has typed. For instance, a generated question could be umfowethu usula inkomishi and the correct answer generated (to check the learner’s response against) is abafowethu basula izinkomishi. Another example is generation of the negation from the positive, or, vv.; e.g.:

Q: <PLSC+VerbRoot+FV>
A: <PLNEGSC+VerbRoot+NEGFV>

For instance, the question may present batotoba and the correct answer is then abatotobi. In total, there are six different types of sentences, with two double, like the plural above, hence a total of 16 templates. It is not a lot, but it turned out it is one of the very few attempts to use a CNL in such way: there is one paper that also will be presented at CNL’18 in the same session [4], and an earlier one [5] uses a fancy grammar system (that we don’t have yet computationally for isiZulu). This is not to be misunderstood as that this is one of the first CNL/NLG-based system for computer-assisted language learning—e.g., there’s assistance in essay writing, grammar concept question generation, reading understanding question generation—but curiously very little on CNLs or NLG for the standard entry-level type of questions to learn the grammar. Perhaps the latter is considered ‘boring’ for English by now, given all the resources. However, thousands of students take introduction courses in isiZulu each year, and some automation can alleviate the pressure of routine activities from the lecturers. We have done some evaluations with learners—with encouraging results—and plan to do some more, so that it may eventually transition to actual use in the courses; that is: TBC…

 

References

[1] Gilbert, N., Keet, C.M. Automating question generation and marking of language learning exercises for isiZulu. 6th International Workshop on Controlled Natural language (CNL’18). IOS Press. Co. Kildare, Ireland, 27-28 August 2018. (in print)

[2] Keet, C.M., Khumalo, L. Toward a knowledge-to-text controlled natural language of isiZulu. Language Resources and Evaluation, 2017, 51(1): 131-157.

[3] Keet, C.M. Xakaza, M., Khumalo, L. Verbalising OWL ontologies in isiZulu with Python. The Semantic Web: ESWC 2017 Satellite Events, Blomqvist, E. et al. (eds.). Springer LNCS vol. 10577, 59-64.

[4] Lange, H., Ljunglof, P. Putting control into language learning. 6th International Workshop on Controlled Natural language (CNL’18). IOS Press. Co. Kildare, Ireland, 27-28 August 2018. (in print)

[5] Gardent, C., Perez-Beltrachini, L. Using FB-LTAG Derivation Trees to Generate Transformation-Based Grammar Exercises. Proc. of TAG+11, Sep 2012, Paris, France. pp117-125, 2012.

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