Language Detecting with sklearn by determining Letter Frequencies

Of course, there are better and more efficient methods to detect the language of a given text than counting its lettes. On the other hand this is a interesting little example to show the impressing ability of todays machine learning algorithms to detect hidden patterns in a given set of data.

For example take the sentence:

“Ceci est une phrase française.”

It’s not to hard to figure out that this sentence is french. But the (lowercase) letters of the same sentence in a random order look like this:

“eeasrsçneticuaicfhenrpaes”

Still sure it’s french? Regarding the fact that this string contains the letter “ç” some people could have remembered long passed french lessons back in school and though might have guessed right. But beside the fact that the french letter “ç” is also present for example in portuguese, turkish, catalan and a few other languages, this is still a easy example just to explain the problem. Just try to guess which language might have generated this:

“ogldviisnntmeyoiiesettpetorotrcitglloeleiengehorntsnraviedeenltseaecithooheinsnstiofwtoienaoaeefiitaeeauobmeeetdmsflteightnttxipecnlgtetgteyhatncdisaceahrfomseehmsindrlttdthoaranthahdgasaebeaturoehtrnnanftxndaeeiposttmnhgttagtsheitistrrcudf”

While this looks simply confusing to the human eye and it seems practically impossible to determine the language it was generated from, this string still contains as set of hidden but well defined patterns from which the language could be predictet with almost complete (ca. 98-99%) certainty.

First of all, we need a set of texts in the languages our model should be able to recognise. Luckily with the package NLTK there comes a big set of example texts which actually are protocolls of the european parliament and therefor are publicly availible in 11 differen languages:

  •  Danish
  •  Dutch
  •  English
  •  Finnish
  •  French
  •  German
  •  Greek
  •  Italian
  •  Portuguese
  •  Spanish
  •  Swedish

Because the greek version is not written with the latin alphabet, the detection of the language greek would just be too simple, so we stay with the other 10 languages availible. To give you a idea of the used texts, here is a little sample:

“Resumption of the session I declare resumed the session of the European Parliament adjourned on Friday 17 December 1999, and I would like once again to wish you a happy new year in the hope that you enjoyed a pleasant festive period.
Although, as you will have seen, the dreaded ‘millennium bug’ failed to materialise, still the people in a number of countries suffered a series of natural disasters that truly were dreadful.”

Train and Test

The following code imports the nessesary modules and reads the sample texts from a set of text files into a pandas.Dataframe object and prints some statistics about the read texts:

Above you see a sample set of random rows of the created Dataframe. After removing very short text snipplets (less than 200 chars) we are left with 56481 snipplets. The function clean_eutextdf() then creates a lower case representation of the texts in the coloum ‘ltext’ to facilitate counting the chars in the next step.
The following code snipplet now extracs the features – in this case the relative frequency of each letter in every text snipplet – that are used for prediction:

Now that we have calculated the features for every text snipplet in our dataset, we can split our data set in a train and test set:

After doing that, we can train a k-nearest-neigbours classifier and test it to get the percentage of correctly predicted languages in the test data set. Because we do not know what value for k may be the best choice, we just run the training and testing with different values for k in a for loop:

As you can see in the output the reliability of the language classifier is generally very high: It starts at about 97.5% for k = 1, increases for with increasing values of k until it reaches a maximum level of about 98.5% at k ≈ 10.

Using the Classifier to predict languages of texts

Now that we have trained and tested the classifier we want to use it to predict the language of example texts. To do that we need two more functions, shown in the following piece of code. The first one extracts the nessesary features from the sample text and predict_lang() predicts the language of a the texts:

With this classifier it is now also possible to predict the language of the randomized example snipplet from the introduction (which is acutally created from the first paragraph of this article):

The KNN classifier of sklearn also offers the possibility to predict the propability with which a given classification is made. While the probability distribution for a specific language is relativly clear for long sample texts it decreases noticeably the shorter the texts are.

Background and Insights

Why does a relative simple model like counting letters acutally work? Every language has a specific pattern of letter frequencies which can be used as a kind of fingerprint: While there are almost no y‘s in the german language this letter is quite common in english. In french the letter k is not very common because it is replaced with q in most cases.

For a better understanding look at the output of the following code snipplet where only three letters already lead to a noticable form of clustering:

 

Even though every single letter frequency by itself is not a very reliable indicator, the set of frequencies of all present letters in a text is a quite good evidence because it will more or less represent the letter frequency fingerprint of the given language. Since it is quite hard to imagine or visualize the above plot in more than three dimensions, I used a little trick which shows that every language has its own typical fingerprint of letter frequencies:

What more?

Beside the fact, that letter frequencies alone, allow us to predict the language of every example text (at least in the 10 languages with latin alphabet we trained for) with almost complete certancy there is even more information hidden in the set of sample texts.

As you might know, most languages in europe belong to either the romanian or the indogermanic language family (which is actually because the romans conquered only half of europe). The border between them could be located in belgium, between france and germany and in swiss. West of this border the romanian languages, which originate from latin, are still spoken, like spanish, portouguese and french. In the middle and northern part of europe the indogermanic languages are very common like german, dutch, swedish ect. If we plot the analysed languages with a different colour sheme this border gets quite clear and allows us to take a look back in history that tells us where our languages originate from:

As you can see the more common letters, especially the vocals like a, e, i, o and u have almost the same frequency in all of this languages. Far more interesting are letters like q, k, c and w: While k is quite common in all of the indogermanic languages it is quite rare in romanic languages because the same sound is written with the letters q or c.
As a result it could be said, that even “boring” sets of data (just give it a try and read all the texts of the protocolls of the EU parliament…) could contain quite interesting patterns which – in this case – allows us to predict quite precisely which language a given text sample is written in, without the need of any translation program or to speak the languages. And as an interesting side effect, where certain things in history happend (or not happend): After two thousand years have passed, modern machine learning techniques could easily uncover this history because even though all these different languages developed, they still have a set of hidden but common patterns that since than stayed the same.

Christopher Kipp

Christopher Kipp ist Junior Data Scientist bei der DATANOMIQ GmbH. Der studierte Chemiker befasst sich intensiv mit programmatischen und statistischen Lösungen im Bereich Data Science und Data Engineering.

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