Introduction to NLP

Introduction to NLP
Photo by Pietro Jeng / Unsplash

Natural language processing (NLP) is a subfield of linguistics, computer science, and artificial intelligence concerned with the interactions between computers and human language, in particular how to program computers to process and analyze large amounts of natural language data. The goal is a computer capable of "understanding" the contents of documents, including the contextual nuances of the language within them. The technology can then accurately extract information and insights contained in the documents as well as categorize and organize the documents themselves.

Challenges in natural language processing frequently involve speech recognition, natural language understanding, and natural language generation.


Text and speech processing

Optical character recognition (OCR)

Given an image representing printed text, determine the corresponding text.

Speech recognition

Given a sound clip of a person or people speaking, determine the textual representation of the speech. This is the opposite of text to speech and is one of the extremely difficult problems colloquially termed "AI-complete" (see above). In natural speech there are hardly any pauses between successive words, and thus speech segmentation is a necessary subtask of speech recognition (see below). In most spoken languages, the sounds representing successive letters blend into each other in a process termed coarticulation, so the conversion of the analog signal to discrete characters can be a very difficult process. Also, given that words in the same language are spoken by people with different accents, the speech recognition software must be able to recognize the wide variety of input as being identical to each other in terms of its textual equivalent.

Speech segmentation

Given a sound clip of a person or people speaking, separate it into words. A subtask of speech recognition and typically grouped with it.


Given a text, transform those units and produce a spoken representation. Text-to-speech can be used to aid the visually impaired.

Morphological analysis


The task of removing inflectional endings only and to return the base dictionary form of a word which is also known as a lemma. Lemmatization is another technique for reducing words to their normalized form. But in this case, the transformation actually uses a dictionary to map words to their actual form.

Morphological segmentation

Separate words into individual morphemes and identify the class of the morphemes. The difficulty of this task depends greatly on the complexity of the morphology (i.e., the structure of words) of the language being considered. English has fairly simple morphology, especially inflectional morphology, and thus it is often possible to ignore this task entirely and simply model all possible forms of a word (e.g., "open, opens, opened, opening") as separate words. In languages such as Turkish or Meitei, a highly agglutinated Indian language, however, such an approach is not possible, as each dictionary entry has thousands of possible word forms.

Part-of-speech tagging

Given a sentence, determine the part of speech (POS) for each word. Many words, especially common ones, can serve as multiple parts of speech. For example, "book" can be a noun ("the book on the table") or verb ("to book a flight"); "set" can be a noun, verb or adjective; and "out" can be any of at least five different parts of speech.

Lexical semantics (of individual words in context)

Lexical semantics

What is the computational meaning of individual words in context?

Distributional semantics

How can we learn semantic representations from data?

Named entity recognition (NER)

Given a stream of text, determine which items in the text map to proper names, such as people or places, and what the type of each such name is (e.g. person, location, organization). Although capitalization can aid in recognizing named entities in languages such as English, this information cannot aid in determining the type of named entity, and in any case, is often inaccurate or insufficient. For example, the first letter of a sentence is also capitalized, and named entities often span several words, only some of which are capitalized. Furthermore, many other languages in non-Western scripts (e.g. Chinese or Arabic) do not have any capitalization at all, and even languages with capitalization may not consistently use it to distinguish names. For example, German capitalizes all nouns, regardless of whether they are names, and French and Spanish do not capitalize names that serve as adjectives.