Matt Sanford

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Language Detection Geekery

There have been a few questions on the Twitter API development list asking about how is able to detect the language of a tweet. The methods used are nothing new to the field of natural language processing (NLP), but most developers haven't studied much NLP. I'll cover the industry standard method we're using, as well as the shortcomings. I'm a language geek but not a linguist or NLP scientist so I started with a knowledge of programming but not of the existing techniques for language detection. I was able to recognize spoken and written languages I didn't speak and that sparked my interest in what I was gleaning that information from. I'm no protege so there must be some simple mental process. I thought language-specific search would be nice so I read up and started on the code.

Most Common Words

My first thought was that you can determine a language by using some of the most common words. I spent a lazy Saturday afternoon thinking about it and came up with an idea. While 'die' is a word in English, it's a very common article in German (feminine 'the'). I started to think about how I could leverage that knowledge to detect languages but ran into a wall. You see, I speak German so it wasn't a good explanation for my ability to pick up the difference between spoken Chinese and Korean. Those two bring up a good point, the way I determine those in writing (characters) differs from how I do in speech (tones). In languages, the most common words tend to be the shortest and with only a limited number of syllables it seemed like my common-words method was doomed to failure.

It seemed clear my first idea wasn't going to work but it seemed close to a statistical method for identifying a language. That phrase 'statistical method' made me think of conference papers so I started searching those. That reading not only brought me up to speed on the current state of language detection, but increased my general language interest.

Character Distribution

I was pleasantly surprised to find out I wasn't totally off base in looking at distribution of the data. It's the basis of statistical analysis so how could I really be that far off, but being new to all of this I feared I had made the most rookie of mistakes. It turns out that if you chop words up into groups of letters and store the distribution for each language they are different enough to let you determine a language with pretty good accuracy.

This method is very successful but in requires that you have a large set of training data for each language in order to get an accurate distribution. There are some academic collections you can use, but not for a commercial product. My background in is in web crawlers, so crawling a series of sites for each language seemed reasonable. The problem was, without language detection I wouldn't know what language it was. A bit of a catch-22.

Enter Wikipedia. There data is divided by language, freely available, large, and created on a variety of subjects by a variety of authors. In my brief NLP and language reading I had already learned that the subject, author and audience of a work will have a large influence on the types of words used. For example, if you did your English training on legal contracts you would think we say use much more Latin that we really do.

The code for doing this character distribution work can be found in Nutch. That code was hard to find when searching for language detection. Being a crawler developer I remembered seeing it and verified it works based on character distribution. My crawlers and my language hobby were coming together at last. I did some crawling for additional languages from Wikipedia and then realized that ideographic language fail using this method since they don't use as restrictive of an alphabet.

Ideographic Languages

While the character distribution method handles languages using the Latin alphabet really well it does break down on some other alphabets. It works surprisingly well on languages using the Arabic alphabet (Arabic, Farsi, etc), as well as Cyrillic, Hebrew and a slew of others. I am guessing any semi- phonetic language is going to match that pattern. Where it has problems is Kanji, since a word is not made up of a combination of characters from a small set.

I don't speak Chinese or Japanese but I used them as a good example of two ideographic languages that the character distribution method fails to differentiate. What's interesting between these two is that Japanese actually uses several different character sets for text. You can see in the Unicode table there are Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana … which got me thinking: What if you used the statistical distribution of character sets?

As it turns out this gives reasonably good results. Good enough that they are worth keeping. I removed all ideographic training data from the character distribution check and made the code try a second method where it checks the character set distribution. A bit of manual evaluation and some checks for minimum confidence later and it seems like we are sorting Chinese from Japanese correctly often enough to make me, a non-speaker, happy.


I'm not a linguist. I'm not a computational linguist. I'm a programmer who is facinated with language. I learned the basics of language detection and extended it a little to cover ideographic scripts. I've had some success and I hope this helps you have a little too. Our training data still needs some work, but I think over all I've found a solution that is pretty damn good for the cost … which was my time and a little CPU.

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