A review of NLG realizers and a new architecture

That last step in the process of generating text from some structured representation of data, information or knowledge is done by things called surface realizers. They take care of the ‘finishing touches’ – syntax, morphology, and orthography – to make good natural language sentences out of an ontology, conceptual data model, or Wikidata data, among many possible sources that can be used for declaring abstract representations. Besides theories, there are also many tools that try to get that working at least to some extent. Which ways, or system architectures, are available for generating the text? Which components do they all, or at least most of them, have? Where are the differences and how do they matter? Will they work for African languages? And if not, then what?

My soon-to-graduate PhD student Zola Mahlaza and I set out to answer these questions, and more, and the outcome is described in the article Surface realization architecture for low-resourced African languages that was recently accepted and is now in print with the ACM Transactions on Asian and Low-Resource Language Information Processing (ACM TALLIP) journal [1].

Zola examined 77 systems, which exhibited some 13 different principal architectures that could be classified into 6 distinct architecture categories. Purely by number of systems, manually coded and rule-based would be the most popular, but there are a few hybrid and data-driven systems as well. A consensus architecture for realisers there is not. And none exhibit most of the software maintainability characteristics, like modularity, reusability, and analysability that we need for African languages (even more so than for better resourced languages). African is narrowed down in the paper further to those in the Niger-Congo B (‘Bantu’) family of languages. One of the tricky things is that there’s a lot going on at the sub-word level with these languages, whereas practically all extant realizers operate at the word-level.

Hence, the next step was to create a new surface realizer architecture that is suitable for low-resourced African languages and that is maintainable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, since the paper is in print, this new architecture compares favourably against the required features. The new architecture also has ‘bonus’ features, like being guided by an ontology with a template ontology [2] for verification and interoperability. All its components and the rationale for putting it together this way are described in Section 5 of the article and the maintainability claims are discussed in its Section 6.

Source: [1]

There’s also a brief illustration how one can redesign a realiser into the proposed architecture. We redesigned the architecture of OWLSIZ for question generation in isiZulu [3] as use case. The code of that redesign of OWLSIZ is available, i.e., it’s not merely a case of just having drawn a different diagram, but it was actually proof-of-concept tested that it can be done.

While I obviously know what’s going on in the article, if you’d like to know much more details than what’s described there, I suggest you consult Zola as the main author of the article or his (soon to be available online) PhD thesis [4] that devotes roughly a chapter to this topic.


[1] Mahlaza, Z., Keet, C.M. Surface realisation architecture for low-resourced African languages. ACM Transactions on Asian and Low-Resource Language Information Processing, (in print). DOI: 10.1145/3567594.

[2] Mahlaza, Z., Keet, C.M. ToCT: A task ontology to manage complex templates. FOIS’21 Ontology Showcase. Sanfilippo, E.M. et al. (Eds.). CEUR-WS vol. 2969. 9p.

[3] Mahlaza, Z., Keet, C.M.: OWLSIZ: An isiZulu CNL for structured knowledge validation. In: Proc. of WebNLG+ 2020. pp. 15–25. ACL, Dublin, Ireland (Virtual).

[4] Mahlaza, Z. Foundations for reusable and maintainable surface realisers for isiXhosa and isiZulu. PhD Thesis, Department of Computer Science, University of Cape Town, South Africa. 2022.